Authors: PJ Tracy
‘What are we looking at?’ He frowned over the man’s massive shoulder at a blank monitor.
‘Just wait,’ she said, and in the next instant a photograph filled the screen.
Magozzi and Gino both bent closer, squinting at a wide-angle shot of that morning’s Jane Doe when she was still draped over the angel statue in Lakewood Cemetery. The strange thing was that there were no cops in the picture, no gawkers, no crime-scene tape . . . just the body and the statue.
‘Who took this shot?’ Gino asked.
‘I did.’ The man called Harley rolled his chair to one side to give them a closer look, but neither cop needed it. They both took a step backward, eyes on Harley.
‘Looks like you got there long before we did,’ Gino said carefully.
‘Is that what this morning’s crime scene looked like?’ Grace MacBride asked.
Magozzi ignored her. It didn’t look like the crime scene. It
the crime scene. ‘The kids who found the body said they never left it until the first responders arrived,’ he said, still looking at Harley. ‘They called 911 on a cell. Which means you were there before anybody . . . with the possible exception of the killer.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Harley muttered. ‘I am not your killer, and that is not the crime scene.’
‘We were there, sir.’ Gino’s voice was tight. ‘And obviously, so were you. Now when exactly did you take that picture?’
Harley threw up his hands. ‘Christ, I don’t know. When was it, Roadrunner?’
Magozzi’s head jerked left when Ichabod Crane piped up, ‘A couple weeks ago. Anyway, I can’t remember the date . . . Oh, wait a minute. It was Columbus Day, remember, Harley? You had to loan me twenty because the banks were closed –’
‘Wait a minute.’ Magozzi interrupted. ‘Just wait a minute. You took that shot a couple
‘I don’t think so.’ Gino was looking at the picture again, shaking his head.
‘We were all there,’ the heavyset woman said. ‘Two weeks ago. All except Mitch.’
‘That’s right,’ Grace said.
to be there,’ the yuppie type muttered, ‘but I remember which night it was . . .’
.’ Magozzi took a breath, looked from one to the other, his gaze finally settling on Grace. ‘Let’s hear it.’
‘It’s a staged photograph.’
‘Excuse me?’ Gino was confused, belligerent now.
‘It’s a game, darlin’.’ The big woman got up from her chair and walked over to a coffeemaker on a counter, about twenty yards of peacock blue silk swishing around her. Neither detective could take his eyes off her. ‘
Serial Killer Detective
, SKUD for short. Our new computer game.’
‘Perfect,’ Gino muttered. ‘A game about serial killers. How uplifting.’
‘Honey, we feed the market; we don’t create it,’ Annie drawled. ‘It’s like Clue with more dead people, that’s all. Anyway, the player catches the killer by finding the clues in a series of crime-scene photos. That one’s murder number two. Take a closer look. That’s Roadrunner up there on that angel.’
Magozzi and Gino looked at the beanpole in Lycra, then back at the picture again. They both saw it at the same time, the details they’d missed at first glance because the general image was so close. The red dress, the long blond hair, the stiletto heels . . . they were all perfect. But their Jane Doe had had tiny hands with red lacquered nails. The hands in this photo were large and sinewy and obviously male. And the feet . . . the feet were huge. As was the protruding Adam’s apple.
Gino glanced down at Roadrunner’s size fourteens, then up at his neck. ‘Jesus,’ he whispered. ‘It
Magozzi continued to stare at the picture, his mind racing, his blood pressure rising. The damn thing was part of a
. He had to struggle to focus on what Grace MacBride was saying.
‘ . . . most of the murder scenarios in the game are pretty ordinary. But the setting for this one was so unique that the odds against a coincidence seemed . . .’
‘Astronomical,’ Magozzi said, turning his head to look at her.
He looked at the fat woman. ‘You said it was a new game.’
‘Brand-new. It hasn’t been released yet.’
‘So the only people who have seen this photo are in this room.’
Harley snorted and spun his chair around. ‘You think we’d call you if one of us was the killer?’
‘Maybe,’ Magozzi said evenly.
Grace MacBride walked over to Roadrunner’s desk and laid her hand on his shoulder. ‘How many?’ she asked quietly.
Roadrunner looked up at her. ‘Five hundred eighty-seven.’ He glanced over at Gino, then at Magozzi. ‘We put the game on our local test website over a week ago. As of this morning, we’ve had 587 hits on that site –’
’ Gino exploded. ‘This thing’s on the Internet?!’
‘We shut it down!’ Roadrunner was defensive. ‘Right after we saw the paper this morning.’
‘Which means that only 587 people besides us have seen these photos,’ Grace MacBride interjected.
Grace leveled her gaze on Gino. ‘I don’t know what you’re so upset about. A few hours ago you had an infinite number of suspects. We’ve just narrowed the field for you, down to 587.’
‘Plus five,’ Magozzi said pointedly, looking at each of them in turn, Grace MacBride last. ‘And if you don’t know what Detective Rolseth is upset about, then you obviously haven’t considered that if you hadn’t put this game on the web, a very young woman might still be alive.’ He paused for a moment to let that sink in, then felt his mind screech to a halt as something Annie had said finally registered. ‘Wait a minute. You said this was the second photo. What was the first?’
Harley turned back to his keyboard and started typing. ‘I’ll pull it up, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as number two. Here it is.’ He rolled his chair to the side to give the detectives a closer look. ‘Number one. Nothing special. Just a jogger by the river.’
Magozzi heard Grace MacBride catch her breath next to him, wondered briefly what that was about, then was immediately distracted by the photo on Harley’s monitor.
He and Gino stared at it for a long time, both faces devoid of emotion. Magozzi was remembering yesterday morning, kneeling next to the body of the jogger across from Rambachan, watching gloved fingers pry open the dead mouth, smelling childhood candy in a corpse. ‘What’s wrong with his mouth?’ he asked.
Harley brightened a little. ‘That’s a clue. All you do is click on it.’ He started to reach for the mouse, but Magozzi’s words stopped him cold.
‘Tell me it’s not a piece of red licorice.’
Harley turned his head slowly to look at him. ‘How’d you know that?’ he asked, but before the words were out of his mouth he knew. They all knew, but the guy in the polo shirt had to hear it out loud.
‘A jogger was murdered?’ he asked weakly.
Gino said, ‘Yesterday morning. Don’t any of you people watch the news?’
‘And he had a piece of red licorice in his mouth,’ Magozzi added. ‘And that
on the news.’
The silence lasted only a few seconds, as long as it took them all to absorb the reality of what had already happened, and the chilling possibility of what might lie ahead.
‘Oh Lord,’ Annie finally whispered. ‘Oh Lord in heaven. He’s playing the game. He’s doing them all.’
Magozzi felt his chest tighten. ‘How many is “all”?’
‘Twenty,’ Mitch said flatly, fumbling behind him for a chair, then sagging into it. ‘There’s a total of twenty in the game.’
‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,’ Gino whispered.
Roadrunner flapped his arms, frustrated. ‘No, no, no, you don’t understand how this works! Yes, there are twenty murders in the game, but no one’s seen anything past murder seven.’
‘How do you know that?’ asked Magozzi.
Roadrunner sighed impatiently. ‘Because I monitor this thing 24-7, that’s how. You have to solve one level before you can proceed to the next and none of the players on the site have gotten past murder seven. Some of them haven’t gotten that far.’
‘Oh, well, that’s a relief,’ Gino said. ‘Here I thought we were going to have a bunch of bodies cluttering up the city. Turns out we’ve only got five more to go.’
Magozzi was longing for a chair. A recliner, preferably, and maybe a few beers, and certainly a world where people didn’t kill each other for fun. ‘I assume you’ve got some kind of a registration list for the players who signed onto your test site.’
‘Sure. Name, address, phone number, e-mail.’ Annie pushed away from the counter and swished over to the one computer in the loft that looked like a human being might run it. The desk was deeply polished butternut, free of clutter, with a porcelain pot that held an artful arrangement of silk flowers precisely the same peacock blue as her dress. Magozzi wondered if she changed the flowers daily to match her wardrobe. ‘I’ll show you a list, for all the good it will do.’
‘And why’s that?’ Gino asked, closing in on her desk.
‘A lot of the entries are pure fabrication.’ She pointed to a name on her monitor, hypnotizing Gino with a white lacquered nail sprinkled with blue sparkles. ‘Take a look at this one. Claude Balls, and he lives on Wildcat’s Revenge Avenue.’
‘That is so old,’ Roadrunner complained.
‘Tell me about it. People have no imagination anymore.’
Gino leaned over Annie’s shoulder for a better look. ‘Your computer doesn’t catch things like that?’
Annie’s plump right shoulder rotated in an amazingly sensual shrug. Gino nearly had a heart attack. ‘Registration of any kind became an exercise in futility a long time ago. Most programs only require that certain fields be filled in; they don’t cross-check to make sure the entries are legit. And why would you? Are you going to refuse potential buyers access to the site, just because they want some privacy?’
‘So there’s no way you can find out Claude Balls’s real name.’
Annie smiled a little. ‘I didn’t say that. In theory, it’s pretty simple. Just trace back from where he signed onto the site, then get the membership records from his Internet service provider.’
Magozzi addressed his shoes because he didn’t want to look at the Monkeewrench partners. Not right now. If he told them what he needed and saw the slightest flicker of hesitation cross the face of any one of them, he thought perhaps he might pull out his gun and shoot them. ‘I want a copy of that registration list. I also want copies of every murder scenario in the game, especially the staged crime-scene photos. Now am I going to have a problem getting this stuff from you people without a warrant?’
‘Of course not,’ he heard Grace MacBride say. Her voice was shaking. She was standing perfectly erect, motionless, a tall, beautiful woman with a gun under her arm, and yet for some reason she looked totally helpless to Magozzi in that moment.
‘The man on the riverboat,’ she said to Harley. ‘Print it.’ And then she turned to Magozzi. ‘That’s the third murder. You’ve got to stop it.’
Magozzi was sitting alone in Mitch Cross’s office, phone hooked in his shoulder, drumming his fingers on a desk that looked sterile enough for surgery.
While Muzak bastardized the Beatles in his ear, he examined the room for evidence that a human being actually worked here, and found none. Not a single scrap of paper littered either the desk or the credenza behind it, which held a computer that looked new and unused. He could see his reflection in the dark monitor screen, and not a speck of dust. He slid open the top desk drawer an inch, saw uniformly sharpened pencils nesting in a neat row, points aligned, and a flat box of wet wipes.
The walls were white and empty, except for a single abstract painting that did absolutely nothing for Magozzi. No color, no life, just a few black blobs on a lot of wasted canvas that filled him with the childish urge to find some colored markers and try his hand at graffiti.
A copy of the crime-scene photo of murder number three lay perfectly centered on the desk in front of him. It was only a serendipitous act of placement – he’d tossed it there when he sat down – but it bothered him that the thing had seemed to position itself in perfect harmony with the obsessive-compulsive surroundings. He moved the photo until it was slightly crooked, and immediately felt better.
Crime-scene number three was the kind of childishly naughty image a teenage kid would dream up: a pudgy, middle-aged man sitting on a toilet with his pants puddled around his ankles and a bullet hole in his head. Magozzi decided it was probably the brainchild of the big tattooed guy, a case of arrested development if ever he saw one.
According to the SKUD game, the third victim was found in the restroom of a paddleboat during an evening party cruise on a river. He supposed there were even better places to lay a trap for a killer, but this one suited Magozzi just fine.
He’d been on one of the paddle wheelers years ago, a dinner cruise down the St Croix River back in the days when he and Heather did such things together. It had been bigger than he’d expected – three decks and seating for five hundred – and a lot less romantic. The interior decks were single, vast rooms with no private spaces where romantic – or homicidal – fantasies could be indulged. The restrooms were right out in the open, with access in plain view. If he had to, he figured they could cover a boat with just twelve officers, four per deck, although he was hoping for an even better scenario. Cancel the charter, fill the boat with cops in their best civvies, and let the bastard come.
The Muzak switched from Beatles to Mancini and Magozzi glanced at his watch impatiently. It had taken five minutes to find out that only a few of the great paddle-boats were still on the river this late in the year, and that only one – the
– was chartered for a party cruise tonight. Getting the rest of the information he needed was taking a lot longer than it should have.
The music clicked off abruptly and Mr Tiersval, the president of the paddleboat company, came back on the line. ‘Detective Magozzi?’
‘I’m sorry for the delay. We have . . . a bit of a situation here.’ The man’s voice was strained to the breaking point. ‘Tonight’s charter is the Hammond wedding reception.’