NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
By the time psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware reached the school the damage was done: A sniper had opened fire on a crowded playground, but was gunned down before any children were hurt.
“Virtually impossible to put aside until the final horrifying showdown.”—People
While the TV news crews feasted on the scene and Alex began his therapy sessions with the traumatized children, he couldn’t escape the image of a slight teenager clutching an oversized rifle. What was the identity behind the name and face: a would-be assassin, or just another victim beneath an indifferent California sky? Intrigued by a request from the sniper’s father to conduct a “psychological autopsy” of his child, Alex begins to uncover a strange pattern—it is a trail of blood. In the dead sniper’s past was a dark and vicious plot. And in Alex Delaware’s future is the stuff of grown-up nightmares: the face of real human evil.
About the Author
Hometown:Beverly Hills, California
Date of Birth:August 9, 1949
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A. in psychology, University of California-Los Angeles; Ph.D., University of Southern California, 1974
Read an Excerpt
Back to school.
It evokes memories of the tests we’ve passed, or the ones we’ve failed.
Monday. Milo’s call punctuated a hard, gray November day that had finally erupted into rain.
He said, “Turn on your TV.”
I glanced at my desk clock. Just after two-forty p.m.--talk show time. The cathode freak display. “What? Nuns who murder, or pets with ESP?”
“Just turn it on, Alex.” His voice was hard.
“Take your pick.”
I flicked the remote. The sound came on before the picture. Sobs and whimpers. Then faces. Small faces, lots of them. Eyes wide with bafflement and terror. Fragile bodies blanketed and huddled together on the floor of a large room. Gleaming hardwood floors and chalk-white goal lines. A gym.
The camera moved in on a little black-haired girl in a puff-sleeved white dress as she accepted a plastic cup of something red. Her hands shook; the beverage sloshed; a false bloodstain spread on white cotton. The camera lingered, feasting on the image. The little girl burst into tears.
A chubby boy, five or six, cried. The boy next to him was older, maybe eight. Staring straight ahead and biting his lip, straining for macho.
More faces, a sea of faces.
I became aware of a mellow-voiced commentary--calculated sound bites alternating with strategic pauses. Sucked into the visuals, I let the words pass right through me.
Camera-shift to rain-slick asphalt, acres of it. Squat flesh-colored buildings spattered calomine-pink where the rain had penetrated the stucco. The voice-over droned on and the camera got manic--a flurry of visual slices, so brief they bordered on the subliminal: flak-jacketed, baseball-hatted SWAT cops crouched on rooftops, poised in doorways, and muttering into hand-held radios. Yellow crime-scene tape. Assault rifles; the glint of telescopic scopes; bullhorns. A cluster of grim men in dark suits conferring behind a barrier of squad cars. Police vans. Pulling away. Policemen packing and leaving. Then a sudden wide pan to something in a black zip-bag being carted away through the rain.
The owner of the mellow voice came on screen. Sandy-haired, GQ type in a Burberry trenchcoat and electric-blue crunch-knotted tie. The coat was soaked but his hair spray was holding up. He said, “Information is still trickling in, but as far as we can tell, only one suspect was involved and that individual has been killed. Here we see the body being taken away, but no identity has been released. . . .”
Zoom in on black bag, wet and glossy as sealskin. Stoic morgue techs who might have been taking out the garbage. The bag was hoisted up and into one of the vans. Slam of door. Close-up of the reporter squinting into the downpour, playing intrepid war correspondent.
“. . . Recapping then, Nathan Hale Elementary School in the West Side community of Ocean Heights was the scene of a sniping that took place approximately forty minutes ago. No deaths or injuries are reported, except for that of the sniper, who is reported dead and remains unidentified. The exact circumstances of the death are still unknown. Previous rumors of a hostage situation have turned out to be false. However, the fact that State Assemblyman Samuel Massengil and City Councilman Gordon Latch were at the school at the time of the shooting has fueled reports that an assassination attempt may have been involved. Latch and Massengil have been on opposite sides of a controversy concerning the busing of inner-city children to underpopulated schools on the West Side and had planned a televised debate, though at present there is no indication if the shooting was related to--”
“Okay,” said Milo. “You’ve got the picture.”
As he spoke I spotted him standing behind the open door of one of the squad cars, one hand over his ear, the radio speaker pressed to his mouth. A background figure, too far away to make out his features. But his bulky figure and the plaid sport coat were giveaways.
“Alex?” he said, and I watched him scratch his head on screen. A weird juxtaposition--phone-a-vision. It faded as the camera swung back to the wet, empty schoolyard. A second of blank screen, station identification, a promise of resumption of “our regular programming” followed by a commercial for weight-loss surgery.
I switched off the TV.
“Alex? You still there?”
“All these kids--it’s a real mess. We could use you. I’ll give you directions. Use my name with the uniform at the command post. Ocean Heights isn’t far from your neck of the woods. You should be able to make it in, what? fifteen, twenty minutes?”
“Something like that.”
“Okay, then? All these kids--if anything’s got your name on it, this one does.”
I hung up and went to get my umbrella.
Ocean Heights adheres to the west end of Pacific Palisades, awkward as a pimple on a cover girl’s chin.
Conceived by an aerospace corporation as a housing tract for the hordes of engineers and technicians imported to Southern California during the post-sputnik boom, the district was created by bulldozing lime groves, landfilling canyons, and performing radical surgery on a few mountain-tops. What emerged was a slice of Disneyana: a “planned community” of flat, wide, magnolia-lined streets, perfect square sod lawns, single-story ranch houses on quarter-acre lots, and small-print deed covenants prohibiting “architectural and landscaping deviance.”
The corporation is long gone, vanquished by poor management. Had it leased the houses instead of selling them, it might still be in business, because L.A. land-grab mania has pushed Ocean Heights prices into the high six-figure mark and the tract has emerged as an upper-middle-class refuge for those craving salt air seasoned with Norman Rockwell. Ocean Heights disapproves of the untrimmed, septic-tank-and-home-grown-dope ambience of neighboring Topanga, glares down like a dowager aunt upon the beach-blanket licentiousness of Malibu. But the view from the bluffs is often hazy. Fog, like complacency, seems to settle in and stay.
Milo’s directions were precise, and even in the rain the drive went quickly--a spurt down Sunset, a turn onto a side street I’d never noticed before, three miles along a glassy canyon road that had a reputation for eating joyriders. A year of drought had ended with a week’s worth of unseasonal autumn downpour, and the Santa Monica mountains had greened as quickly as home-grown radishes. The roadside was a tangle of creeper and vine, wildflower and weed--a boastful profusion. Nature making up for lost time.
The entrance to Ocean Heights was marked by the death of that boast: a newly surfaced avenue bisected by a median of grass and shaded by magnolias so precisely matched in contour and size they could have been cloned from the same germ cell. The street sign said ESPERANZA DRIVE. Beneath it was another sign: white, blue-bordered, discreet, proclaiming Ocean Heights a guarded community.
The rain took on power and spattered against my windshield. A half mile later the police command post came into view: sawhorse barriers blocking the street, a domino spread of black-and-white squad cars, a battalion of yellow-slickered policemen projecting the guilty-till-proven-innocent demeanor of Iron Curtain border guards. Something else fed the checkpoint image: a group of about a dozen women, all Hispanic, all soaked and distraught, trying to cross the barriers, meeting stoic resistance from the cops. Other than that, the street was empty, shutters drawn on diamond-paned windows, color-coordinated panel doors dead-bolted, the sole movement the shudder of flowers and shrubs beneath the watery onslaught.
I parked and got out. The downpour hit me like a cold shower as I made my way toward the barricade.
I heard a woman cry out, “Mi nino!” Her words were echoed by the others. A chorus of protests rose and mingled with the hiss of the rain.
“Just a short while longer, ladies,” said a baby-faced cop, struggling to appear unmoved.
One of the women called out something in Spanish. Her tone was abusive. The young cop flinched and looked over at the officer next to him--older, thickset, gray-mustached. Catatonic-still.
The young cop turned back to the women. “Just hold on now,” he said, suddenly angry.
Gray Mustache still hadn’t moved but his eyes had settled on me as I approached. A third cop said, “Man coming up.”
When I was within spitting distance, Gray Mustache gave a straight-arm salute, showing me the lines on his palm. Up close, his face was wet and puffy, laced with veins, and chafed the color of rare steak.
“No further, sir.”
“I’m here to see Detective Sturgis.”
The mention of Milo’s name narrowed his eyes. He looked me up and down.
He cocked his head at one of the other patrolmen, who came over and stood guard at the barrier. Then he went to one of the black-and-whites, got in, and talked into the radio. A few minutes later he came back, asked to see some ID, scrutinized my driver’s license, and stared at me a while longer before saying “Go ahead.”
I got back into the Seville and pulled forward. Two cops had cleared a car-sized space between the sawhorses. The Hispanic women surged toward it, automatically, like water down a drain, but were stopped by a shifting line of blue. Some of the women began to cry.
Gray Mustache was waving me through. I pulled up alongside of him, opened my window, and said, “Any reason they can’t go see their children?”
“Go ahead, sir.”
I drove on, braving a gantlet of accusing eyes.
Nathan Hale Elementary School was eight more blocks up Esperanza--a blacktop and flesh-stucco flashback to the images I’d just seen on the tube. Three empty school buses were parked at the curb, along with paramedics’ vans and a few straggling press vehicles. The main building was sprawling and gray-roofed, skirted by a waist-high hedge of podocarpus. The front door was pumpkin-orange. Two cops guarded it from behind a cordon of yellow crime-scene tape. More palm-salutes, dirty looks, and radio checks before the chain-link gate to the school grounds was unlocked and I was directed around to the back.
As I made my way I noticed another tape cordon, wrapped around a small shedlike structure with wire-mesh windows, about seventy feet from the main building. Over the door was a sign: equipment. Crime-scene techs kneeled and stooped, measuring, scraping, snapping pictures, getting drenched for their efforts. Beyond them the rain-blackened schoolyard stretched like scorched desert, vacant except for the distant galvanized geometry of a jungle gym. A single female reporter in a red raincoat shared her umbrella with a tall young officer. What was passing between them seemed more flirtation than information transfer. They paused as I walked by--just long enough to decide I was neither newsworthy nor dangerous.
The back doors were tinted double-glass above three concrete steps. They swung open and Milo stepped out, wearing a quilted olive-drab car coat over the plaid sport jacket. All those layers--and the weight he’d put on substituting food for booze--made him look huge, bearish. He didn’t notice me, was staring at the ground, running his hands over his lumpy face as if washing without water. His head was bare, his black hair dripping and limp. His expression said wounded bear.
I said, “Hello,” and he looked up sharply, as if rudely awakened. Then his green eyes switched on like traffic lights and he came down the stairs. The car coat had large wooden barrel-shaped buttons dangling from loops. They bobbed as he moved. His tie was gray rayon, water-spotted-black. It hung askew over his belly.
I offered him my umbrella. It didn’t cover much of him. “Any problems getting through?”
“No,” I said, “but a bunch of mothers are having a problem. You guys could use some sensitivity training. Consider that my initial consultation.”
The anger in my voice surprised both of us. He frowned, his pale face deathly in the shade of the umbrella, the pockmarks on his cheeks standing out like pinholes in paper.
He looked around, spotted the cop chatting up the reporter, and waved. When the cop didn’t respond, he cursed and lumbered away, shoulders hunched, like an offensive tackle moving in for the crush.
A moment later the patrolman was sprinting out of the yard, flushed and chastened.
Milo returned, panting. “Done. The mommies are on their way, police escort and all.”
“The perquisites of power.”
“Yeah. Just call me Generalissimo.”
We began walking back toward the building.
“How many kids are involved?” I said.
“Couple of hundred, kindergarten through sixth grade. We had them all in the gym, paramedics checking for shock or injuries--thank God, nothing. The teachers took them back to their classrooms, trying to do what they can until you give them a plan.”
“I thought the school system had people to deal with crises.”
“According to the principal, this particular school has trouble getting help from the school system. Naturally, I thought of you.”
We reached the steps, where we were sheltered by an overhang. Milo stopped and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for coming down, Alex. It’s a goddam mess. I figured no one would do a better job than you. I don’t know what your schedule’s like or if they’ll be able to pay you, but if you can at least get them started on the right foot . . .” He cleared his throat and rubbed his face again.
I said, “Tell me what happened.”
“Looks like the suspect got onto the school grounds before school opened, either by scaling or walking through--couple of the gates were left unlocked--proceeded into the storage shed, which had a dinky lock on it, and stayed there.”
“No one uses the shed?”
He shook his head. “Empty. Used to be for athletic equipment. They keep all that stuff in the main building now. Suspect was settled in there until a little after noon, when the kids came pouring out for recess. Latch and Massengil and their people showed up by twelve-thirty and that’s when the shooting started. Teachers began shoving the kids back in the building, but it was a real mob scene. Mass hysteria. Everyone falling over everyone else.”
I glanced back at the storage shed. “TV said no one was hurt.”
“Just the suspect. Permanently.”
He shook his head. “It was over before SWAT got here. One of Latch’s guys did the job. Fellow named Ahlward. While everyone else was diving for cover, he rushed the shed, kicked the door in and played Rambo.”
“I’m not sure what he is, yet.”
“But he was armed.”
“Lots of people in politics are.”
We climbed the steps. I took another look back at the shed. One of the mesh windows offered a clear view of the main building.
“It could have been a shooting gallery,” I said. “Nearsighted sniper?”
He grunted and pushed the door open. The interior of the building was oven-warm, ripe with the mingled aromas of chalk dust and wet rubber.t
What People are Saying About This
“Though a time bomb is ticking away at the heart of this novel, readers will forget to watch the clock once they start it.”—Chicago Sun-Times
“A marvelous read.”—The New York Times Book Review