Read The Death Artist Online

Authors: Jonathan Santlofer

Tags: #Women detectives, #Women art patrons, #Serial murders, #Mystery & Detective, #Ex-police officers, #Crime, #New York (N.Y.), #General, #Psychological, #Women detectives - New York (State) - New York, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Artists, #Thrillers, #Mystery Fiction, #Fiction

The Death Artist

THE DEATH ARTIST
The First Book in the
KATE MCKINNON Series
(2002)
Jonathan Santlofer
Synopsis:

 

Murder is a fine art ...

A killer is preying on New York's art community, creating gruesome depictions of famous paintings, using human flesh and blood as his media. Terror stalks this world of genius, greed, inspiration, and jealousy -- a world Kate McKinnon knows all too well.

A former NYPD cop who traded in her badge for a Ph.D in art history, Kate can see the method behind the psychopath's madness -- for the grisly slaughter of a former protégé is drawing her into the predator's path. And as each new murder exceeds the last in savagery, Kate is trapped in the twisted obsessions of the death artist, who plans to use her body, her blood, and her fear to create the ultimate masterpiece.

 

FOR JOY
Prologue

 

Even before it all went bad she had the feeling it was going to be a rotten day. She blamed it on the headache, the one she’d woken up with. But even later, as the headache eased, the feeling, almost a sense of foreboding, remained. Still, she’d made it through the day. Maybe, she thought, the night would be better.

She was wrong.

“How about something to drink, maybe some coffee?” He smiles.

“I should be getting home.”

He looks at his watch. “It’s only eight-thirty. Come on. I’ll buy you a cup of the best cappuccino in town.”

Maybe she says yes because the headache is finally gone, or because the day has turned out much better than she expected, or because she doesn’t feel like being alone, not right now.

“Let’s walk a bit.”

The night air is cold, a little damp. She shivers in her thin cotton jacket.

“Cold?” He puts his arm around her shoulders. She’s not sure she wants him to, turns the thought over in her mind, sighs audibly.

“What?”

She smiles weakly. “Nothing you’d understand.”

Her comment annoys him.
Why wouldn’t I understand?
He drops his arm from her shoulders–she wonders, why?–and they continue along another block, lined with restaurants and midsize brownstones, in silence, until she says, “Maybe it’s simpler if I just catch a cab home.”

He takes her arm, gently stops her. “Come on. It’s just coffee.”

“I think I should go.”

“Okay. But I’ll see you home.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can get home by myself.”

“No. I insist. We’ll take a cab, grab a cappuccino in your neighborhood. How’s that?”

She sighs, doesn’t have the energy to argue.

In the cab, neither speaks; he looks out the window, she stares at her hands.

The Starbucks on her corner is locked; the kid inside, mopping up, waves them off through the glass.

“Damn. I really wanted some coffee.” He looks at her, sad, like a little boy, then offers up his best smile.

“Oh, okay. You win.” She smiles, too. “I’ll make us some.”

At the front door to her building she fumbles with her keys, gets one in the lock, but the door eases open before she even turns the key.

“Everything’s falling apart around here. They’re doing construction, keep breaking everything. I’d complain to the super, but he’s worthless.”

On the second floor they have to step around stacks of wood and electrical supplies.

“I think they’re making two apartments into one. Hoping for a big rent, I guess. It’s been going on for weeks, driving me crazy with the noise.”

On the third floor, she unlocks a dead bolt, then a police lock.

He walks past her into the apartment, immediately removes his coat, drops it on a chair, is making himself way too comfortable, she thinks. He sits down on her sofa–a layer of thick foam covered with a bold cotton print with pillows she’d bought on Fourteenth Street, one with a stenciled portrait of Elvis, the other of Marilyn. He runs his finger over Marilyn’s garish red mouth, back and forth, back and forth.

She realizes she still has her coat on, removes it, hangs it on a hook behind the front door, turns the dead bolt, then slides the police lock into place. “Habit. You know.” She smiles, nervously, turns into the kitchenette, a rectangular alcove attached to the living room, no bigger than a closet. She pulls a chain, and a lightbulb illuminates the half-sized refrigerator, two-burner stove, tiny sink, a shelf with a toaster oven and a drip coffee machine. She removes the top half of the coffeemaker, takes out a soggy brown filter, tosses it into a small plastic trash can.

“Can I help?”

“It’s way too small in here. I’m okay.”

She can feel him watching her in the tiny kitchen as she gets the coffee going; becomes self-conscious about the way she moves, the swaying of her hair. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

When she comes back into the living room, she chooses the hard-backed chair at her computer table across from the couch. “Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.” He looks up at her, smiles, says nothing. She plays with a loose thread at the cuff of her blouse, tries to think of a way to fill the silence. “How about some music?” She stands up, takes the few necessary steps to the CD player in the corner on the floor. “My one luxury.”

He crosses the room, kneels beside her, plucks a disc from the neat stack. “Play this.”

“Billie Holiday,” she says, taking the CD from his hand. “She kills me.”

Kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me
. . . The words echo in his brain.

A clarinet pipes out through two small speakers, followed by Billie’s inimitable, soulful whine. The first lines of “God Bless the Child” fill the room with an unspeakable sadness.

He watches her kneeling beside him, humming along, head tilted, hair spilling over the side of her face. He’s been watching her all night, thinking about this, planning. But now he’s not sure. Start it all again? It’s been so long. He’s been so good. But when he reaches out and touches her hair, he knows it is already too late.

She jerks her head back, immediately stands up.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says, careful to keep his voice calm as he watches her, enjoying the way she moves, like a cat, jumpy, skittish. But when he sees her standing above him, looking down at him as though he were some kind of inferior being, there is no longer anything remotely kittenish about her. A flash of anger spreads through his body, and he’s ready.

“I’ll get the coffee.” She turns away, but he grabs hold of her arm. “Hey,” she says. “Cut it out.”

He lets go, puts his hands up in a sign of truce, tries the smile on her again.

She folds her arms across her chest. “I think you should go.”

But he settles back onto her couch, locks his hands behind his head, a grin on his lips. “Let’s not make this into a big deal, okay?”

“Some things are. But I don’t want to discuss it right now and . . . I doubt you’d understand.”

“No? Why is that? Ohhh . . . wait, I think I’m getting it.”

“Just go.” She holds her defiant pose.

“I know,” he says. “I’m the bad guy, right, and you’re the innocent, put-upon woman. Oh, sure. Real innocent.” He stands. “Well, let me tell
you
something . . .”

“Hey. Relax,” she says, trying to regain control of the situation. “It’s cool.”

“Cool?” He repeats the word as if it had no meaning for him.

Do it!

“Just a minute!” he shouts.

“What?” she asks, but can see he is not really speaking to her, his eyelids fluttering as though he were going into some kind of trance.

He takes a step forward, hands clenched.

She drops her stance, makes a dash for the door. She’s scrambling with the police lock when he lunges. She tries to scream, but he’s got his hand pressed–hard–across her mouth.

Then he is all over her, pulling at her arms, shouting, mumbling, his voice harsh, unrecognizable. He stretches her arms above her head. She is surprised at his strength, but manages to wrench a hand free, smacks him in the mouth. A thin line of blood trickles over his lip. He doesn’t seem to notice, knocks her to the floor, pins both her arms under his knees, all his weight holding them down, freeing up his arms to tear at her blouse, to grope at her breasts. She tries to kick but can’t connect, her legs just thrash in the air.

Then he grabs her chin, leans down, presses his mouth against hers. She tastes his blood. She wrenches her head back, spits in his face, hears herself scream:
“I’ll kill you!”

He hits her hard in the face, then moves off her, stands beside the couch looking down. “How shall we do this?” he asks. “Nice or . . . not so nice?”

She is seeing double, unable to right herself, feeling close to being sick.

Then he is on top of her again, rubbing himself against her, cursing. She bites into the Marilyn pillow, concentrates on Billie Holiday.

But now his movements have become frantic, his cursing louder, and she is aware of the fact that there has been no penetration, and feels a sense of relief.

He rolls off her, says, “You just didn’t get me hot,” and pulls his pants up. It was a mistake.

Of course it’s a mistake. Stick to the plan.

She pushes her skirt down.

“The new woman . . . so tough,” he says, fumbling for words, anything to soothe his damaged ego. “So tough she can’t satisfy a man.”

She tries to think straight, just wants him out. “Yes,” she says. “You’re right, I–I’m sorry. It wasn’t you, I–”

He grabs her face, turns her toward him. “
What?
What did you say?” She tries to push his hand off, but can’t. “You patronizing me?
Me!
You fucking little slut!” He lets go of her face and then the slap comes so fast that for a moment she is stunned, then she screams.

“Get out! Get the fuck outta here!”
She lunges for the phone. But he’s too fast for her. He wrenches it off the end table. The cord jumps in the air as it’s torn from the socket. Then he’s got her by the hair and around the waist, practically dragging her into the kitchen; the scorching glass of the coffeemaker is scalding her naked back. He slams her against the wall. The coffeemaker falls; boiling coffee splashes against her ankles. She tries to scratch his face, misses, and he punches her hard.

An image of herself as a young girl in a white confirmation dress floods her mind; and then the white turns gray, and then everything is black.

He hardly remembers his hand finding the knife in the shallow sink, but the girl is quiet now. She’s on the floor, one leg twisted under her, one straight out in front, and there is blood everywhere–splattered on the stove, cabinets, floor. He can’t even remember the color of her blouse, it’s all stained a deep, gorgeous red. Pinkish saliva bubbles from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes are wide open, staring at him in surprise. He returns her vacant stare.

How long has it been? Has anyone heard them? He listens for sirens, televisions, radios, signs of life from other apartments, but hears nothing. He feels lucky.
Yes, I’ve always been lucky.

He rasps, “What a mess,” his throat gone dry. He finds a pair of Playtex gloves beside the sink, squeezes his bloodied hands into them, washes the knife thoroughly and drops it into a drawer; then removes his shoes so he won’t track bloody footprints, and places them on the shelf beside the toaster oven. He tears a few paper towels off a roll, balls them up, squirts them with liquid detergent, and works his way around the apartment cleaning off everything he can remember touching. He even takes the Billie Holiday disc off the player, puts it back in its sleeve, slips it into the middle of a stack of CDs.

He checks the couch for anything he might have dropped, anything torn off, buttons, even hairs. He sees a few hairs that he thinks are the girl’s, but just to be safe he takes the Dustbuster from the wall in the kitchenette and goes over the couch several times, then towels it off, replaces it.

Unconsciously, he touches his lip, feels the soreness, remembers the kiss.

Back in the kitchenette, he takes a sponge from the sink, squirts it with more detergent, washes blood off the dead girl’s lips, then shoves the sponge in and out of her mouth.

He lifts her lifeless hand.
Nail polish?
No, blood.
Mine or hers?
But here the sponge refuses to do the job, traces of red cling stubbornly beneath her nails. He jams the sponge into his pant pocket, right on top of the damp wad of paper toweling–the moisture oozes through the fabric and onto his thigh. Then he removes a small leather-bound manicure set from his inner pocket–one he always carries with him–and sets to work with his fine metal tools. Ten minutes later the girl’s nails are not only spotless, but finely shaped. He takes a moment to admire his handiwork. Then, using his cuticle scissors, he carefully snips a lock of the girl’s hair and presses it into his shirt pocket, just above his heart.

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