The following are extracts from the novels I've published with RADICAL ROBOT BOOKS and DOUBLE DRAGON PUBLISHING.
These extracts are subject to copyright. Reproduction for review purposes or other legitimate reasons is, of course, perfectly acceptable. Special mention and thanks to Deron Douglas and Karen Babcock at Double Dragon for all their help and encouragement with Tokyo Gothic, Death Disco and Kinky Kabuki and to Deron for his terrific cover artwork on those editions.
"Sex is magic. It is the oldest, most powerful kind of magic there is. It binds us to creation. But creation is nothing without destruction. Life and death feed on each other—the eternal serpent devouring its own tail. Since the dawn of time the most primitive cultures understood this. They personified the elements they feared and worshipped, offering sacrifices to appease them. And so they created gods."
The Immaculatrix crossed the floor, her high heels echoing through the darkness. Three antique hypodermic syringes glittered between her latex-clad fingers like archaic weapons. Paralysed with fear—naked and defenceless—Osborn couldn't speak or make a sound. The Immaculatrix watched him coldly and continued:
"They drove spikes into their tribal idols, signifying the fusion of sex and violence, life and death. Recognising the magical power of symbolism, anthropologists called these barbaric images fetishes. Eventually more sophisticated religions evolved. They were equally brutal. Just think of poor, gentle Jesus hanging from the tree—the nails embedded in his hands and feet. The passion of Golgotha is a Christian fetish."
The Immaculatrix inserted the final needles.
Syringes covered Osborne's entire body, anchored in dense layers of meat and muscle. Some touched bone. Others pierced his groin, testicles and penis. A nest of glass and steel encased his face. The syringes contained a cocktail of pharmaceutical-grade heroin and blood. They glowed like rubies. Lethal jewels. Osborn had been utterly transformed. No longer human, he had become a thing. A fetish.
"Quite a makeover, wouldn't you say, Robert?"
But Robert Osborn could say nothing.
Chains attached to metal hooks buried in his chest suspended Osborn from an apparatus known as the gibbet. Osborn dangled above the floor, swaying gently. He had lost count of how many women and girls he'd hanged on the device. Of course, he'd never forgotten how they squirmed and pleaded. The blood gleaming on their pale flesh, sweet tears on their cheeks. Their suffering had enthralled him. He had become addicted to their pain. But now he found himself condemned to share their fate.
Whiplash marks striped his skin. The beating had lasted for hours. At least he guessed it had. Every moment had felt like an eternity. Osborn had shrieked until his lungs ached and his throat bled. His body reduced to a boiling mass of pain, he had lost consciousness repeatedly. And each time the Immaculatrix had patiently revived him.
And had started again.
But then, abruptly, the scourging had stopped. Osborn had succumbed gratefully to the darkness. The respite proved brief. He had awoken just in time to witness the completion of the Immaculatrix's masterpiece: the monstrosity she'd made of him. He had no choice but to see it all.
While he'd been unconscious she had removed his eyelids.
Even that was simply the beginning.
And it had started here in the heart of his secret lair. The Tabernacle. Osborn's hidden sanctuary resembled a blasphemous shrine. Decorated entirely in black, leather and latex featured throughout. Ominous red light illuminated the gloom. Plush black velvet drapes trimmed with silver braid covered the altar erected in the middle of the floor. A life-size obsidian skull—flanked by a pair of black candles, a silver chalice and a ceremonial dagger— stood on top of the altar.
The Tabernacle came equipped to satisfy every perversion. The sadistic inventory included whips and clubs, handcuffs and suffocation masks, genital clamps and anal plugs, ligatures of various types. Everything needed to inflict the most delicious kinds of pain. From behind a two-way mirror a digital recording suite—linked to microphones inside the torture chamber itself—captured everything. The footage could be played and replayed, watched and enjoyed again and again. But now Osborn stared in horror at the thing in the mirror. A nightmare confronted him—his own reflection.
"Yes. It is quite magical, isn't it, Robert? An illusion worthy of Houdini."
The Immaculatrix stepped in front of the mirror, obscuring Osborn's reflection. She coalesced mysteriously from the substance of shadows, an enigmatic siren. It seemed as if the black latex cat-suit she wore wasn't just a costume but her actual skin itself. Her own reflection apparently intrigued her as much as the sight of Osborn's maimed body. Which of them did she consider the illusion? Osborn?
The Immaculatrix turned and looked back over her shoulder, apparently reading Osborn's thoughts. Sensing his fear. Her large turquoise eyes transfixed him. The black eye-mask she wore heightened their brilliance. Her perfect bone structure expressed an elegant diagram of death and desire. Tied in a thick ponytail, her black hair snaked over her back like the crested headdress of a glamorous Amazon.
"You know all about magic, of course. Don't you, Robert? You're an alchemist of sorts. Like Faust you sold your soul for the secret of the Philosopher's Stone..."
Wrapped in clear plastic, a large quantity of heroin lay neatly arranged on the altar: luminous tablets of beckoning death. The Immaculatrix extended a claw and sliced through a sachet the size of a house brick. She scooped a little of the white powder on the end of her talon and placed it to her lips. Her jewelled eyes sparkled as she tasted it.
"Drugs and money are both the elements and the product of your craft. Your genius, Robert, is to transform one into the other."
Wads of money lay next to the stash of heroin.
The Immaculatrix lifted a tightly bound bundle of US currency, eyeing it disdainfully. "Wealth and power are transitory—just as the transcendence narcotics promise is a cruel illusion. Once cannot serve God and Mammon both." She paused, reading the slogan IN GOD WE TRUST printed on the banknote. A smile played about her lips, as she remarked: "Unless, of course, Mammon is one's God."
Osborn failed to see the joke.
"Curious inscriptions— practically occult. The Eye in the Pyramid. Novus Ordo Seculorum—'A Secular New Order.' Interesting—" She held a bill to one of the candles and watched it burn. "Is that how you and your kind see yourselves: God-Kings of a new world order? Heirs to the tyrants of the Nile?"
Osborn realised he was going to die. But he no longer feared death.
The prospect of further pain terrified him more.
"The pharaohs believed that not even death could deprive them of their wealth. Yes, they worshipped money too—just like you, Robert. They couldn't bear to be separated from their god either. So the priests of Egypt devised special rituals to ensure they would achieve immortality and retain their riches in the afterlife..."
A trolley—the kind used in operating theatres—stood close to the altar. It carried an array of sinister-looking objects. They resembled surgical instruments designed to inflict suffering—obscene procedures that had nothing to do with healing. Anticipating his captor's cruel intentions, Osborn felt his blood turn to ice.
The Immaculatrix watched him, gauging his reaction. Satisfied he'd had sufficient time to contemplate his fate, she showed him an elongated metal hook and said:
"I assume you're familiar with the burial customs of ancient Egypt."
The sun had barely risen when Justine Sinclair arrived on the scene—a large, secluded estate located in the pleasant Surrey countryside. Though it was only the first day of September, it felt cold for the time of year. The sky looked flat, congested with grey clouds.
Justine had moved away from the house now. She glanced back over her shoulder. The four-storey mansion dwindled into the distance. The cars parked on the gravel driveway looked small—like toys. She could hardly make out the untidy shapes that occupied the spaces between them. Or the thing that resembled a bundle of old clothes carelessly discarded across the hood of a black Mercedes. Justine had examined them already. She knew what they were. Bodies.
Justine chose not to dwell on the corpses or the manner of their death. Not that she was squeamish. But she realised it served no useful purpose. There would be time enough for that. Later. She strode purposefully on, the damp earth squelching beneath her feet. The ground sloped abruptly as Justine made her way towards the trees. Ahead the dark woods beckoned.
Slightly built, Justine had a petite—almost waif-like—figure. Her black, shoulder-length hair framed a small face with delicate bones. She had very pale skin and large blue eyes set far apart beneath hooded lids. Simultaneously remote and intense, her gaze seemed to express an unresolved conflict waged by the warring factions of her mind. Though in her mid-thirties, Justine's slender physique and youthful features made her appear ten years younger. She wore a black trouser suit, a white shirt and a pair of sturdy shoes with Dr. Martens soles. The breeze tugged at the hem of her jacket, exposing the gun in a leather holster at her hip. Two of the operatives she'd encountered upon her arrival followed her up the hill, gripping Heckler and Koch submachine guns. Their hard eyes scanned the area.
Suddenly Justine became aware of something. A vibration.
It felt like the muffled noise of a powerful machine buried deep beneath the earth. Justine realised what it was immediately. Hooves. After a moment, she no longer just felt them. She could hear them. They were growing steadily louder. Closer.
Justine unfastened her holster, fingering the grip of the Glock 17. The magazine held fourteen Glazer safety slugs: hollow point shells in a standard copper casing with a number-12 shot suspended in liquid Teflon. Glazers explode on impact, inflicting maximum tissue damage. At point-blank range they could blow a hole in a man the size of a watermelon. In terms of sheer stopping power the Glazers remained unbeatable. Put a man down—he wouldn't get up again.
But what about a horse?
The sound of pounding hooves grew louder by the second. Justine's pulse quickened. But she remained calm. This was no time to lose her head. Aware of the men behind her, their weapons rattling, Justine realised she was standing in their line of fire. Something white flashed through the darkness that lingered between the trees directly ahead. Layers of liquid silver illuminated the shadows. And then the horse exploded out of the woods. It was a white stallion.
Justine had never seen a horse at such close quarters before. The sheer size of the animal startled her. Its gleaming muscles exuded a formidable power as it reared on its hind legs, its hooves tearing up clods of dirt. The beast resembled a monstrous apparition, a creature from ancient mythology. Spumes of yellow foam bubbled around its mouth as the lips curled back, baring its large teeth. Clouds of hot vapour billowed from its flared nostrils. Its eyes rolled insanely in their orbits. The animal looked mad, driven out of its mind by fear or disease. Its enormous phallus stood fully erect and dark against its white underbelly, the violence it implied ominous.
Time stood still. The horse held its ground. Justine had a clear shot. But she hesitated. It was not the sight of the horse that caused her to hesitate—but its rider.
The rider had no face.
Sitting high in the saddle, jerking stiffly as the stallion bucked violently beneath him, the rider wore a black cloak with a hooded cowl. He seemed supremely calm, indifferent to the danger. His teeth remained fixed in a broad, salacious leer. Shadows pooled in his empty eye sockets. A skull. Justine found herself staring directly into a gleaming, grinning skull. A mask. That was her first thought: He's wearing a mask. And then the ground began shaking beneath her feet once more.
The stallion rushed at Justine, hooves thundering across the wet grass, its mad eyes blazing. The rider rocked back and forth in the saddle. Justine raised the Glock 17, steadying her aim with both hands. The horse was just yards away. In seconds it would be on her, snapping her bones beneath its hooves, trampling her fragile body to muck. She squeezed the trigger. Took a step back. And stumbled.
The gun's brittle retort sounded like a firecracker.
Although she did not fall, Justine's aim had been spoiled. The Glazer did not hit the horse as she'd intended. Instead it buried itself in the rider's shoulder. He pitched back in the saddle. But he did not fall. As if mounted on springs, he lurched forward into his original position. The skull retained its macabre humour. The horse kept coming.
Justine didn't have time to fire again.
Suddenly she noticed something.
It was the sound of a Heckler and Koch's firing bolt being withdrawn.
Justine flung herself to the ground, covering her head with both hands. The grass was cold and wet against her face. She could feel it through her shirt: icy dampness on her small breasts and flat belly. She wondered if it would be the last thing she would ever feel. That and the earth trembling beneath the stallion's pounding hooves.
And the life crushed from her body.
A short burst of automatic gunfire, a metallic death rattle, tore through the air. Another sound immediately followed it. It was shrill and high-pitched: an agonised, tormented shriek. Justine had never heard anything like it before. It sounded inhuman—utterly inhuman. It was the horse. Screaming.
Justine had pressed her body hard against the dirt, gambling that the horse would leap over her. She held her breath. A dark shadow engulfed her, blocking out the light of the sun. And then something hit her. It felt hot and wet. Blood.
For a moment the earth became still.
And then it shuddered violently once more. Justine felt the vibrations through her entire body as the horse hit the ground. It rolled down the hill, making ghastly noises.
Seconds passed. Justine remained lying where she was. She exhaled loudly, scarcely believing she'd survived. Slowly she pushed herself up, wiping the mud from the front of her shirt and jacket. She felt acutely aware of the horse's blood soaking through her clothes, warm and sticky against her skin. Justine took a second to compose herself. And then she began to walk down the hill.
The horse lay on its side. Its skin gleamed deathly white. The concentrated burst of submachine gunfire had caught the animal in mid-leap, laying its belly open. The blood spurting from its abdomen turned the grass black. The earth was becoming soft. Boggy. The animal thrashed frantically, floundering in a bloody quagmire. A steaming mound of entrails uncoiled from its ruptured body cavity, raw and glistening in the cold morning mist. Even in the open air the stench was appalling. As the animal's death throes intensified, larger organs forced their way through the torn flaps of skin and muscle. Justine noticed the animal's enormous penis poking through the loops of its greasy bowels. Bright pink froth foamed around its mouth. It gleamed with meaty nuggets of expressed lung tissue as the horse drowned in its own blood.
The two operatives stared down at the awful spectacle. A tendril of blue-grey smoke curled from one of their weapons. The smell of cordite underscored the meaty tang of ripe intestines. The fall had thrown the rider partly free, his right leg pinned beneath the horse. He remained motionless. Dead. The body looked like a broken mannequin, limbs splayed and twisted. Encased in white rubber bandages, it resembled a mummy. An orthopaedic harness had been fastened around the torso. A steel rod connected it to the saddle. This contraption had obviously been designed to keep the rider upright. He was already dead when he'd been placed in the saddle. The black cape and hooded cowl remained in place. The rubbery fabric was torn, ripped by stray branches and undergrowth. But the rider's face—or the lack of it—really intrigued Justine.
It was a skull. Utterly denuded of flesh, it shone like polished marble. It looked as if it had been picked clean by scavengers, bleached white beneath a harsh desert sun. But there was nothing natural about this. Somebody had done this.
"Aw fuck. That's just sick. That's just too fucking sick..." One of the agents stared down between the corpse's thighs. His complexion assumed a greyish hue. Justine followed his gaze and immediately understood why.
The corpse's genitals were gone.
Although the groin had been wrapped in white rubber bandages, the fall had worked the dressing free. The man had been castrated. The empty scrotum had been sewn back up. The sutures were neat. It looked like a surgical procedure.
"Jesus, what kind of sick, fucking animal...?" the man muttered.
As he spoke, the horse gasped, struggling to draw breath into the wreckage of its lungs. It snorted violently. Plumes of pink vapour erupted from its nostrils. Its struggles grew weaker now, more desperate and pathetic. Its eyes looked opaque with pain and madness.
"What kind of animal?" said Justine as she walked across the steaming dirt. She withdrew the Glock's slide mechanism, feeling its percussive friction in the small bones of her hand. As she crouched by the horse, the smell of the animal—its blood and seeping bowels—became overpowering. She ignored it. The creature's pain had touched her. She wanted to end that at least. It was all she could do right now. The horse lifted its head weakly, perhaps sensing her intention. An awful, grating sound emerged from its throat. Justine stared down into the bulging orb of its eye, infinities of pain and despair. As her finger curled around the trigger, she noticed the animal's erect penis, garlanded with bloody entrails. It strained vigorously against the empty air. Semen jetted away from it, steaming like hot solder. Justine held her breath for a second.
And then she squeezed the trigger.
The Glazer entered the horse's eye, bursting when it hit bone.
Half of the animal's head suddenly vanished, a vivid pink explosion.
"Our job," Justine elaborated calmly, ignoring the debris of blood and brain and bone that spattered her clothing, "is precisely that: to discover what kind of 'sick animal' is responsible for all this." She paused, looking down at the smouldering ruin of the horse's head and added, "And then to put them out of their misery."
"And Osborn? What about him?" the man with the smoking gun asked.
Justine glanced at the twisted corpse pinned beneath the dead horse. A delicate lace of blood glittered across the skull's pale bones, a crimson mantilla. She looked up at the men, her eyes cold and empty as she said, "We've already found Osborn."
The Executive was the best-kept secret in the country. Which was just as well. Keeping secrets was its business. Most who'd ever heard of the Executive dismissed it as a myth. Officially it didn't exist.
Justine Sinclair had been an agent of the Executive for almost ten years. It wasn't just an intelligence agency. It was the last resort. Every police station in the country had access to the Executive. A telephone number. Of course, none of them knew who, or what, was at the other end of the line. A list of strict security protocols governed if, and when, that number should be dialled. Anything too sensitive, too bizarre—too out-and-out weird—happening on his patch, and PC Plod simply had to pick up the phone.
And then promptly forget all about it.
When she'd first started work at the Executive, Justine had immediately thought of the tagline from the movie, Ghostbusters. If there's something weird in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? The joke soon wore thin. Seriously.
Located underground, the Executive's main conference suite lay buried beneath thousands of tons of reinforced concrete and steel. Disguised as an enterprise park, the complex of anonymous buildings above ground stood on the outskirts of the city close to a major motorway. Thousands of motorists passed it every day, indifferent to the bland façade. The conference suite looked like the war room from the movie Dr. Strangelove. Huge video monitor screens covered the walls. A conference table occupied the centre of the floor. The first time she'd seen the place, Justine had wondered what Kubrick would have made of it.
Today the conference suite remained empty aside from Justine and the Executive's director-in-chief, Dr. Varian Temple. Dr. Temple sat at the head of the table, which had been designed to seat thirteen. Each place was equipped with a black leather swivel chair and a computer terminal. Dr. Temple's place had a terminal, but no chair. Since he had used a wheelchair for as long as Justine had known him, that would have been inconvenient and pointless.
"Good morning, Doctor," said Justine as she took her usual place at the conference table and logged on. "I haven't kept you waiting, have I?"
"No, not at all. In fact, you're—" Dr. Temple consulted his gold pocket watch "—one minute and forty-three seconds early. Precisely. I'm a little early myself. After all, there's nothing else on my schedule more pressing than this current bit of, ah, business."
Dr. Temple affected the vague demeanour of a cloistered academic indifferent to the world beyond his ivory tower. But beneath this front his wits remained razor sharp. A big man, he would have stood six feet and five inches tall—in the days prior to his injury. He had a high forehead and piercing blue eyes with snow-white hair and a small beard. Something of the alchemist about him reminded Justine of the ageing Faust.
Twenty-eight hours had passed since the incident at the country estate: the 'business' Dr. Temple alluded to. Since then Justine had been working almost non-stop, pausing only to snatch an hour or two of shallow, troubled sleep on a sofa in her office. She was nursing a persistent headache, a throbbing pain behind the eyes. But that wasn't important. Dr. Temple expected a full progress report. Nothing else mattered.
"At precisely 05:28 on the morning of September 1st we were informed of a disturbance at the country home of Robert Osborn, the prominent international financier and economic theorist," Justine began. As she spoke, the wall-mounted video screens displayed footage of the scene at Osborn's estate. "Osborn's position placed him in the high risk category as a potential terrorist target. He was under constant protection…"
The monitors depicted utter carnage, the aftermath of explosive violence. Bodies lay scattered across the gravel drive where Osborn's black Mercedes remained parked.
"These men were among the top operatives currently—ahem, recently—contracted to Osborn's close-protection program. They all had exemplary records. They had been trained to deal with any contingency. Or so they thought…"
The two bodyguards looked as if they'd been fed through a mincing machine. The remnants of their tattered shirts had turned bright red, revealing evidence of major thoracic trauma. Their faces appeared to have been burned by some powerful corrosive substance like nitric acid. If their hearts hadn't stopped first, they would have drowned in their own blood. Dark pools seeped into the gravel around their bodies. The chauffeur's body sprawled across the hood of the car. His trousers had been torn open from the crotch. A deep gash from his groin to his sternum exposed his dung-coloured entrails. A Browning 9mm automatic remained gripped in his right hand. The safety was still on.
"He didn't get to fire a single shot," Justine resumed. "The bodyguards' weapons were still in their holsters. Whatever happened here, it was fast. Very fast."
"Whatever happened?" Dr. Temple interjected. "We still don't know?"
"At the moment we have insufficient information to answer that question conclusively. We're still collating data at this point."
"But what can you say? For certain, I mean. A preliminary conclusion would suffice. For now," Dr. Temple pressed further, adding: "This scene, Sinclair—what does it say to you?"
"Well, it's obvious that the bodyguards were taken completely by surprise. And that would be no mean feat. Okay, it was dark, sure. But the area around the house is brightly lit with powerful halogen floodlights. And there is a clear fifty yards of open ground between the house and the closest tree. Somehow our assailant managed to move across this exposed area and surprise a three-man team drilled in the most advanced close-protection techniques, trained to expect the unexpected."
"You said assailant. Do I take it you infer a single assassin? One person responsible for—" Dr. Temple gestured at the screens "—all this?"
"If we can be certain of anything, we can be sure of that. Our examination of the scene detected a single set of tracks—other than those of the bodyguards and the chauffeur. Unfortunately they didn't yield too much information. The crucial thing to bear in mind here is the fact that the killer had the advantage of surprise."
"And from that you deduce what exactly?"
"That the killer came from inside the house."
"It was the last thing the bodyguards would have expected. It also explains why the security measures around the grounds proved so ineffective. And, of course, it also suggests something else—"
"That Osborn knew the killer?"
Dr. Temple leaned back in his wheelchair, stroking his small white beard. "I suppose it's logical—but it's still something of a leap. I'm not inclined to dismiss your hypothesis out of hand, but what makes you so sure, Sinclair?"
"The crime scene."
Justine had discovered the place less than an hour after the standard sweep and search operation missed it completely. Located in a sub-basement beneath the wine cellar, a phoney wine rack disguised the entrance to Osborn's inner-sanctum. The structural alterations had been completed ten years earlier. The brick- and plaster-work had been deliberately aged so it looked as if the place had lain undisturbed for decades.
"Your own private torture chamber. Every home should have one," said Justine.
Dr. Temple said nothing, his attention focused on the large monitor screens. The Tabernacle's black latex walls gleamed in the eerie red light. A slow tracking shot surveyed the interior. It resembled a scene from a horror movie.
"The killing took place here," Justine explained. "Preliminary forensic reports suggest that Osborn was tortured for up to ten hours before finally being put out of his misery. The place is completely soundproof, so he could have screamed his lungs out. It wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference. Kind of ironic, really."
"Well, what else would you call it? I mean all…this—" Justine gestured at the screens, all the accoutrements of torture. "Take a look, Doctor: the whole Marquis de Sade party pack. Osborn's little rumpus room was a crime scene long before we got involved. He was into some serious shit that goes way beyond a bit of bondage."
"And you infer from this that Osborn knew the killer?"
"Osborn wouldn't have brought anyone down here unless he felt totally secure. I think he knew the killer. Or felt unthreatened by them at least."
"Yes. That makes sense."
The camera angle changed, focusing on a wall-length mirror. The pristine glass had been deliberately defaced. The killer had left a message. Eight words—large, chaotic letters—daubed in blood:
LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR
"Hmmm, our murderer is proud of their handiwork," Dr. Temple observed. "And quite literary, too. A quote from Percy Bysshe Shelly, if I'm not mistaken."
"It's from Ozymandias," Justine confirmed, "Shelly's meditation on the nature of power, exemplified by the pharaoh. The god-kings of Egypt were ultimately doomed to be swallowed up by the desert they ruled for centuries."
"Does our killer believe we'll see his crimes as evidence of his power, the act of a god-like being? Something as elaborately staged as this: it's typical of the mindset. Delusions of grandeur."
"At first that's what I thought. But I was wrong. The killer was leaving a message, all right. But not about themselves."
On screen a couple of field operatives, wearing white hooded overalls, rubber gloves and facemasks, removed the mirror from the wall. They revealed a small room, equipped with a battery of digital cameras and sound recording equipment. Some of the cameras had sophisticated infrared lenses designed for shooting in complete darkness.
"That was a two-way mirror," Justine explained. "Osborn was a keen amateur film-maker. He liked to record his activities."
The room behind the mirror contained an extensive collection of videotapes and DVDs stacked on shelves, catalogued in alphabetical order. Osborn's private library.
"This is what the killer wanted us to see," Justine said bluntly. "Not their own 'works'—Osborn's. They wanted us to know that the act of torturing and killing Osborn had purpose. The location was crucial. I was wrong when I said that it was ironic that Osborn died here. The killer was concerned with more than irony."
"Really? So what did motivate the killer?"
The Tabernacle's altar appeared on screen. The candles, the dagger and the skull suggested blasphemous rituals. The killer had added a grisly new fetish.
Robert Osborn's heart.
The heart had been placed on one dish of an old-fashioned set of scales. A large black feather rested on the second dish. The scales tilted drastically. Osborn's heart mouldered at the bottom of the seesaw.
"Final judgement," said Dr. Temple, appreciating the symbolism.
"The Weighing of the Heart," Justine concurred. "The ceremony the ancient Egyptians believed awaited all souls after death. Osiris would judge them by weighing their hearts against a vulture's feather. Only if the scales balanced exactly were they deemed worthy of immortality. Looks like Osborn didn't make the cut..."
"So our killer's preferred reading list isn't confined to the Romantic poets. He's acquainted with The Egyptian Book of the Dead, too. You realise, of course, the nature of the game he's playing. Ozymandias. Osiris. Osborn. I read a profile on him in The Economist a few years ago. Do you know what they called him, Sinclair?"
"The Wizard of Wall Street. An obvious play on words. Or a single word—”
"Oz. The killer must attach some meaning to it. Its origins are rooted in the Hermetic mystery tradition and Egyptian mythology, which L Frank Baum drew upon for his Wizard of Oz books. Most people see them simply as children's stories. But they're full of hidden meanings. Clearly the killer is identifying Osborn with all three figures: Osiris, Ozymandias and the wonderful Wizard of Oz. There's a pattern here. One the killer wants us to see. What does it suggest to you, Sinclair?"
"I think the killer sees himself as an iconoclast. It's like the climactic scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy pulls back the curtain and reveals the snake oil peddler who rules the Emerald City by masquerading as the all-powerful Oz. It wasn't enough to simply kill Osborn. The killer wanted to destroy the idea of Osborn—the image he presented to the world—so that we would see him for what he really was."
"Through the Looking Glass?" said Dr. Temple, referring to the secret room behind the Tabernacle's two-way mirror. "I suppose that makes sense. But what about the allusions to Osiris and Ozymandias?"
"You said it yourself, Doctor. The Egyptian Book of the Dead gives a comprehensive account of the death and resurrection of Osiris. He was murdered by Set, who cut the body into pieces and scattered them across Egypt. This myth inspired the burial customs of the ancient Egyptians. They eviscerated the corpses of their dignitaries prior to mummification and stored the organs in canopic jars. And our killer is nothing if not thorough. He has adhered to the principle, but adapted it somewhat—"
Six large glass laboratory jars, filled with formaldehyde, appeared on screen. They contained Osborn's other major organs—the lungs, stomach, intestines and liver. All remained easily identifiable, including the severed genitalia floating in a sour cordial of formaldehyde like an obscene jellyfish. Justine identified the chunky red sludge that filled the final jar as the puréed debris of Robert Osborn's brain.
"The brain had no religious significance for the Egyptians. They removed it using hooks inserted through the nostrils, destroying it in the process," Justine commented. "There was no violence involved then. They were only dealing with corpses."
"You think Osborn was still alive when the killer did that?"
"It's impossible to say. The condition of the organs, you understand."
"So what did kill him?"
Justine consulted her desktop terminal and accessed the relevant file. A transcript of the pathologist's report scrolled across one of the large monitor screens, accompanied by footage of the autopsy itself.
Osborn's body—a mass of bruises and lacerations—lay on a gleaming metal slab. His denuded skull—as bright as polished marble—resembled the obsidian death's head adorning the Tabernacle's black altar: its pale twin. The large, Y-shaped incision running from his shoulders to his groin remained sealed with tight sutures and a gummy residue of congealed blood. The killer had taken care to sew the body up after removing the organs. It looked as if an autopsy had already been performed. The clinical act of castration suggested genuine purpose to the killer's actions, a methodical kind of madness.
Aside from the face, viscera and sex organs, what's missing from this picture? As she examined the screen Justine continued to ask herself the same question: What else is missing? Suddenly she knew the answer. Passion. The killing exhibited a remarkable degree of patience and planning. Such cold-blooded pre-meditation transcended mere murder. The killer had staged an elaborate performance, a macabre coup de theatre. What kind of mind could conceive and carry this out? It required discipline. Dedication.
"The preliminary toxicology report detected high levels of heroin in the major organs the killer stored in the jars," Justine continued. "And we discovered a considerable stash at the scene. It was pure. Uncut. Worth millions on the street."
"An overdose? That's what killed him?"
"It's the most likely cause of death. But there's another possible scenario."
"That the killer used the drug to prolong the torture: relief for when the pain became too intolerable. I imagine Osborn would have passed out repeatedly."
"And the killer waited to bring him around?"
"It makes sense," Dr. Temple observed. "There's no point torturing someone, if you don't prolong it. But there's something else on your mind."
"I think the heroin is significant in itself. I don't know how exactly yet. Maybe it's something we've missed. Everything about this is important: the way it's all been staged. Why should the heroin be any different? The body is covered in puncture marks. We recovered over a hundred syringes at the scene. The killer made a pincushion of Osborn. He was practically embalmed in smack."
"Embalmed? So we're back in Valley of the Kings territory again then, eh?"
They watched the screen as the pathologist set to work, unwrapping Osborn's corpse like a bloody parcel. He began by reopening the Y-incision. Placing his fingers to the gash, he pushed the flesh and fascia aside, as though eager to reveal the wonders beneath. Apparently startled, the pathologist recoiled slightly. He stared down into cadaver.
"Money," Justine announced. "The killer stuffed the corpse with money."
Several large wads had been wedged into the body cavity. The pathologist removed one and held it up to the camera. A familiar image drenched in blood.
A pyramid with a huge eye suspended above its capstone.
"Interesting," Dr. Temple remarked, "but not unexpected, considering our killer's fascination with symbolism. The choice of currency is obviously significant."
"The Eye in the Pyramid," Justine said, referring to the Masonic inscription illuminating the screen. "The All-Seeing Eye of God."
"Or of Ozymandias?" Dr. Temple suggested. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. Perhaps now would be an opportune moment, don't you think?"
The air in the pathology lab felt cold. Still. Its gleaming white walls and floor glowed under the bright, fluorescent lighting. The stainless steel surfaces of the dissection slabs exuded their own cold brilliance. Trays of freshly sterilised instruments glistened like deadly weapons cast in solid silver. The gentle sound of running water enhanced the tranquil atmosphere as an orderly sluiced down some tables.
Justine found the cool ambience a welcome relief after what she had just witnessed in the conference suite. For over an hour she and Dr. Temple had watched extracts from Robert Osborn's extensive video library. Snuff movies. Over the years he had raped, tortured and murdered dozens of women in the subterranean dungeon he called the Tabernacle.
A team had set to work, attempting to correlate the victims with the photographs and physical descriptions of missing women and girls held on police databases. An intensive search of Osborn's country estate had begun, too. The foundations of the house would be excavated. Earth-movers would plough up the grounds. Preparations were in place to drag an adjacent lake for remains.
All the victims had been girls and young women. Some had been little more than children, Justine reflected. Children. Even now she could still hear their screams ringing in her ears. Their pathetic sobs as they pleaded desperately for their lives. And she could still see their faces. Young, young faces contorted in agony and terror.
Justine knew she would never forget their faces.
"Never seen anything like it," announced Alistair Parish, the Executive's chief of pathology. Like many consultants at the top of his profession he went by the title Mister rather than Doctor. "In all my time here, Temple, I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like this."
"Indeed, Parish," Dr. Temple replied. "It is a unique situation."
Osborn's body lay on a stainless steel pallet. Pale CO2 vapours drifted from inside the freezer where they stored his corpse. Ice crystals formed on his skin. Justine remembered the first time she had encountered him in the flesh: the smiling ghost rider exploding from the woods on a white stallion. The pristine skull radiated a stark, macabre power. Its skeletal grin retained a hint of lasciviousness. Justine found herself fighting an irrational impulse. She wanted to spit into that bony face.
Instead, she turned her attention to the body's other injuries.
Bruises and deep lacerations covered the corpse. Parish had removed the sutures from Osborn's mutilated groin. Just a gaping hole remained.
"Raised serotonin and free-histamine levels in the majority of the wounds indicate that these injuries were all inflicted while the victim was still alive," Parish rattled the details off in a matter-of-fact fashion. "In fact, I would venture to say that the victim was conscious throughout the entire procedure. The degree and protracted nature of the torture is clearly indicated by the massive levels of endorphins like dopamine, for instance, that were detected in the remaining tissues and what blood was left. There was also a high concentration of enzymes like adrenaline and epinephrine. Hmmm, it's curious in a way…" Parish's commentary trailed off, as he mused over this last point.
"What's curious about it?" Dr. Temple demanded.
"Well, there's something about the blood chemistry that suggests the perpetrator may have had another reason for torturing his victim in quite this way."
"Other than just inflicting pain?" Justine interjected.
"The way the killer administered the narcotics and carefully paced the level of torture. It seems very deliberate. No, not just deliberate. Disciplined. Scientific—"
"Not simply the pain-relief dynamic? Someone as resourceful and inventive as our killer would realise that the relentless application of pain is ultimately self-defeating," Dr. Temple suggested. "Nerve endings atrophy. Flesh grows numb. The victim loses consciousness. In the worst case scenario he'll die before you're finished with him."
"No. I think I see what Mr. Parish is getting at here," Justine said, contradicting Dr. Temple. "Not the pain-relief dynamic—the pain-pleasure principle."
"Precisely," Parish agreed. "Pain and pleasure have one fundamental thing in common, speaking from a purely metabolic perspective."
"Endorphins," said Dr. Temple, anticipating Parish.
"Correct. Both the narcotics and the pain would have resulted—quite independently of each other—in the massive production of endorphins. It's almost as if the entire procedure was geared towards a single end—" Parish appeared to choose the next words cautiously "—to manufacture endorphins."
"I think what we're dealing with here is sadism in its purest form," Justine suggested. "If the killer is motivated by revenge, what better punishment could Osborn endure than to actually feel pleasure—even briefly—while he suffered? To make him re-experience the pleasure he felt when he tortured his own victims. Maybe the killer wanted him to identify with them totally, to blur the line between their pain and his pleasure. Perhaps the killer was forcing Osborn to become his own victim."
"Interesting. What do you think, Temple?"
"Perhaps," Dr. Temple replied, apparently lost in a fog of thoughts.
For a short time nobody spoke. Whatever the truth, the grinning skull was keeping its secrets—for the time being at least.
"Aside from what I've already indicated in my preliminary report, there isn't a great deal more I can tell you about our friend here," Parish resumed, glancing briefly at his notes. "However, I feel confident in saying that this—" He tapped the pre-frontal region of the skull with his pen "—was sustained post-mortem.
"How was it done?" asked Dr. Temple. "Some kind of acid?"
"Something like that—but not what you're thinking."
"I originally thought the killer might have used sulphuric or nitric acid. But it was neither of those. Remember the bodyguards? Their faces, I mean."
Justine didn't need to be reminded. The guards' and chauffeur's faces had been reduced to featureless masks of scorched flesh. At the time she too had considered the idea that some kind of acid had been sprayed or thrown in their faces.
"Well," Parish resumed, "the same substance was used on them. I found traces of it on our friend here, too." He rapped his pen emphatically against the smooth dome of the skull. "Though in this case it was far more concentrated."
"So if it wasn't acid," Justine asked, "then what…?"
"I can't say for sure. But I'm certain of one thing."
"Oh spit it out, man, for God's sake!" Dr. Temple's patience was obviously wearing thin.
"It's an organic compound. So far I've been unable to identify it. Its closest analogue might be the digestive enzymes of certain reptiles."
"Reptiles?" Dr. Temple frowned.
"Are you serious?" Justine was incredulous.
"It's highly toxic and corrosive in large concentrations. But it seems to display—how should I put it?—other characteristics."
"Such as?" Justine prompted, intrigued.
"We're still running tests, but there are chemical and molecular qualities that suggest an affinity with certain narcotic compounds. I'm thinking specifically of some of the more powerful opiates and hallucinogens. There were traces of it in Osborn's blood and tissues. I'd be interested to know what effect, if any, it had on him. I suppose it's possible, just possible—"
Justine practically pounced. "This stuff—the same thing that burned his face off—it was in his blood? What the hell would that have done to him?"
"It's conceivable that the compound, introduced into his bloodstream in a far more dilute form, might have had drastic metabolic—perhaps consciousness altering—effects."
Justine sensed that this was significant. She considered it for a moment then said, "Have you ever seen anything like this before?"
"Not like this. But if I didn't know better…"
Before Parish could finish, Dr. Temple interrupted. "What about the other item? I believe you said you had something for us. Or did you bring us down here merely for the pleasure of our company?" Peering over his glittering bifocals, Dr. Temple's pale blue eyes seemed to grow discernibly colder. Justine sensed something indefinable passing between the two men. She couldn't be sure. And yet she felt that Dr. Temple had deliberately cut Parish off before he could say something. Something important. It didn't make sense. What was it Dr. Temple would prefer left unsaid?
And, more to the point, why?
"Oh yes. Quite. There is something else I think you'll want to see." Parish reached into the pocket of his white lab coat and produced a clear plastic tube about six inches high and one inch in diameter. He handed it to Justine. It contained a chess piece.
The black queen.
"Our killer's calling card?" Dr. Temple powered his electric wheelchair a little closer, studying the chess piece in Justine's hand.
"Could be," Justine remarked. "Where did you find this?"
"There—" Parish pointed at Osborn's crotch. "After removing the genitalia, the killer inserted the chess piece into the scrotal cavity. Any ideas, Miss Sinclair?"
"Yes. The killer is telling us why they're doing this. And something else—"
"Can you be more specific?" Dr. Temple prompted.
Justine reached out and touched Osborn's skull. Her fingertips traced the lines of the jutting cheeks, the delicate cradle of the eye-socket and the domed cranium. She seemed to be reading some faint psychometric trace: a medium channelling Osborn's ghost. She looked up and met Parish's eye. He turned away, appearing suddenly uncomfortable with something he saw in her. She sensed Dr. Temple's intense scrutiny. A moment passed. The stillness between them in the cold white room felt palpable. Finally Justine said, "The killer is a woman."
From the Netherworlds to Nirvana
The Doll Maker stood before the altar. Incense, chemical smells and flickering candlelight evoked the eerie atmosphere of a pagan shrine. Lost in a dream, the Doll Maker savoured the anticipation. The basement was his sanctuary—the only place on earth he dared reveal his true nature.
Music played on a portable CD player: Puccini's Madam Butterfly provided the perfect accompaniment to the imminent ritual. The Doll Maker remembered how the opera's heroine, abandoned by the gaijin naval officer Pinkerton, embraced suicide and achieved immortality. The libretto's conclusion reminded him of a sewamono drama. Suicide featured in many of those too: the tragic outcome of a michiyuki or 'lover's journey'—a conflict only death could resolve. Nowadays, in modern Japan, such noble sentiments had been forgotten. The Doll Maker mourned their passing.
The aria drew to a close—time to finish his latest masterpiece.
The woman lay on a bare mattress in the middle of the floor, surrounded by the obscene fetishes the Doll Maker had created. She remained completely naked, poised on the threshold of eternity. From the Netherworlds to Nirvana—her odyssey was almost complete. The sacred instruments of her initiation covered a bolt of crisp white linen on the floor beside the mattress. Kneeling, the Doll Maker took a moment to gather his thoughts, mentally rehearsing the process.
He began with the needles.
Dozens of acupuncture needles glittered on the sheet. The Doll Maker inserted them carefully into the woman's body. She had been dead for quite some time, her body ritually groomed and purified. He could feel the delicious coolness of her flesh, chilled to perfection. He briefly visualised the tranquil stillness of her heart, its chambers and valves occluded with clotting blood.
The woman's eyes remained open. They looked glassy. Opaque. Her expression reminded the Doll Maker of the Miroku Buddha. And that pleased him. Visions of infinity illuminated his imagination as he applied the final needles. Precisely distributed over the woman's small breasts and torso, they formed a deliberate design.
A six-pointed star.
Still kneeling, the Doll Maker leaned back on his heels, surveying his work. He nodded slightly. His narrow black eyes sparkled. An exquisite emptiness defined him.
The aria ended. And then it started again.
The CD player repeated the track continuously, providing a sublime obligato to the procedure. Sex and death formed the critical elements of an occult formula hauntingly evoked by Madam Butterfly's suicide: the forlorn romanticism of a doomed michiyuki. The Doll Maker stared into his companion's face. The face he had made.
Time to begin his transformation.
Three small ceramic pots lay nearby. They contained the thick greasepaint traditionally worn by kabuki actors. Kumadori. As he applied the heavy make-up the Doll Maker observed his reflection in the three full-length mirrors arranged at the head of the mattress. His true face revealed itself. He found the process fascinating. Terrifying.
The Doll Maker stared down at his companion. He touched her cold thighs. Caressing the bloodless flesh with his long fingers, he traced a series of invisible hieroglyphs on the dead woman's skin. His excitement mounted. Incredible power coursed through his veins. Already he could feel the blood thickening along the length of his penis. The woman's dead sex exerted an irresistible gravity. It held him transfixed.
The Doll Maker entered her and quickly established the familiar rhythm. Starry holocausts erupted behind his eyes. The advent of his ecstasy approached. He watched himself in the mirrors, visibly transforming. A halo of flames surrounded his body—the undying fire that burned at the heart of Creation.
Outside, the meaningless bustle of Tokyo continued. Its complacent population remained oblivious to the erotic apocalypse the Doll Maker had unleashed.
Soon they would know. He would make them understand.
In Japan they are called rabu hoteru.
English-speaking tourists know them as love hotels, a special kind of establishment peculiar—if not completely unique—to Japan. Sometimes called 'romance hotels', 'fashion hotels' and 'boutique hotels' they provide a convenient venue for prostitution. Posters and flyers advertising delivery health—a euphemism for call girls and escorts—litter the adjacent areas. But in many ways they fulfil a necessary social function. Respectable young couples, still living with their parents and in need of privacy, often use them.
The term love hotel allegedly originated from an establishment in Osaka called Hotel Love. It displayed a revolving sign with the word Hotel on one side and Love on the other—frequently misread as Love Hotel.
Love hotels usually offer a room rate based on a period ranging from one to three hours, known as a 'rest' or kyukei. The patrons and proprietors value discretion, ensuring minimal personal contact between customers and staff. In some of the high-end rabu hoteru one selects a room from a panel of buttons and pays the bill via such face-saving devices as pneumatic tubes or automatic cash machines. The more exclusive establishments offer elaborately themed rooms. Some feature outrageous fantasy suites designed to satisfy specific tastes, such as gothic dungeons complete with SM paraphernalia.
And the Cosmic Soda rabu hoteru catered to that market.
Cosmic Soda was located in Dogenzaka, a stone's throw from Shibuya Station, the heart of downtown Tokyo. Its exterior looked unremarkable—deliberately so. Nothing suggested its true nature to the casual observer. But the proliferation of delivery health flyers in the area gave the game away. Dogenzaka was famous for its love hotels. They did brisk business.
Takeshi Harada lit a cigarette. Less than three minutes had passed since he'd extinguished his last. Smoke filled the car. But Harada scarcely noticed. He'd been a chain smoker for years—ever since he started to work undercover, spending endless hours on long, boring stakeouts.
Of course, back then he'd been a real detective. Five years had passed since he surrendered his badge and gun. His days as a high-flying, decorated officer with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police force had ended in disgrace. The humiliation lingered still. He could chain smoke all he liked, but nothing could disguise its bitter taste.
After he resigned from the force, Harada set up shop as a private investigator. He rented a small office in Shinjuku in a low-rise building between the Koma Theatre and Golden Gai. Kabuki-cho—Tokyo's infamous red light district—occupied a warren of narrow streets there just north of the Yasukuni-dori.
But Kabuki-cho was more than just the heart of the Tokyo vice trade. Organised crime—the ubiquitous yakuza—dominated the area. The police department first posted Harada there as a young beat cop. It remained his stamping ground. Over the years he established a reputation in Kabuki-cho. He'd become as well known as the most notorious yakuza enforcers and pimps with their distinctive hairstyles, loud Hawaiian shirts and sharkskin suits. On the streets of Kabuki-cho Takeshi Harada learned lessons they didn't teach in the Academy. He'd rubbed shoulders with some of the worst criminal elements—a little too closely he now realised. Back then his detective's badge protected him. Now he had only his own wits—his keen survival instinct—to rely on.
As an ex-cop Harada found himself in an unenviable—and possibly unique—position. The gangsters who ruled the roost despised him. And his former colleagues continued to harass him, unwilling to forget the circumstances that forced his resignation. He endured the worst of both worlds.
Harada took a sip of Taiwanese bourbon from a silver hip flask. Drinking and dwelling on his personal problems did little for his mood. Normally a senior detective of Harada's calibre could look forward to a lucrative post-retirement career as a private security consultant with one of the big corporations. But the abortive Internal Affairs investigation put paid to those aspirations. Though he narrowly avoided serious criminal charges, the inquiry reduced his reputation to tatters.
His decision to resign suited his superiors. The scandal of a public trial—the inevitable loss of face—troubled them more than having a corrupt cop on the force. It reflected badly on the whole department. But his former colleagues remained convinced that he'd evaded justice. They had long memories—and they bore grudges.
Men he once considered friends had sabotaged his fledgling enterprise from the start, pouring poison into the ears of potential clients. The lucrative business contacts he'd cultivated over the years soured overnight. And his attempts to court respectable private clients came to nothing. Now he found himself dealing with the bottom feeders. Sordid little marital cases, process serving—even the occasional bailiff work—accounted for the bulk of his caseload. Bulk? That was something of an overstatement. The persistent hate campaign ensured work remained thin on the ground. Harada could just imagine his former colleagues gloating remorselessly, enjoying his humiliation. But right now his mind remained focused on his real problem.
Takeshi Harada was a compulsive gambler—the kind of man who would bet on which of a pair of pigeons would take flight from a TV antenna first or how long it would take a set of traffic lights to change. But baccarat was his real game. However, he had one major problem in that respect. He was terrible at it.
And the more he lost the more he played. To make matters worse, he'd taken out loans with a notorious racketeer that came to more than ¥10,000,000, excluding compound interest. When he'd been a cop he could manage the problem. Swamped by a mountain of debt, he had found the temptation to supplement his salary irresistible. Corruption inevitably followed. It was a matter of survival. Some yakuza clans wouldn't hesitate to murder a cop over a matter of honour as serious as unpaid gambling debts. And, of course, there was the question of his addiction. How else could he continue to show his face at the gaming tables? In spite of everything he remained hooked.
Harada understood what the Americans meant by the expression degenerate gambler. But he found the scale of their hypocrisy breathtaking. What a bunch of sanctimonious bastards. God bless America. The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave: what paragons of virtue—so pure and incorruptible. So how did they explain Las Vegas? The neon oasis thrived on vice, the persistence of gullibility and greed. For a moment Harada wondered about the half-lives of radioactive isotopes. Years of atomic weapons testing had contaminated the Nevada desert. He imagined the arid wind carrying the fallout along the dazzling streets of Las Vegas. Did the debris of nuclear annihilation infiltrate the air conditioning systems of all those gaudy casinos? Considering what the Americans did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Harada hoped so. He considered it fitting retribution for a monstrous crime that went unpunished. Karmic. The idea comforted him. It gave him a warm feeling deep inside.
Or maybe that was just the bourbon.
Shit! Get back on the clock, Takeshi, you silly old bastard, Harada said to himself, suddenly impatient. This was no time for idle daydreaming. He had work to do.
And tonight it was a genuine matter of urgency.
Takeshi Harada was a down-at-heel private eye now. Once he had commanded a degree of grudging respect from the gangsters that inhabited the Kabuki-cho underworld. But now the yakuza thugs sneered openly at him. It was a constant reminder of just how far he'd fallen. Takeshi Harada swam in a sewer infested with depraved and deadly predators. And the worst of the sewer sharks was Koichi Miyazaki.
Miyazaki was a highly placed member of the feared Uchida clan, a yakuza syndicate that dominated the Kabuki-cho vice trade. The mob owned several pink salons, image clubs and soaplands, bath houses that provided a traditional front for prostitution. They also extorted protection money from the restaurants, hostess bars and gambling clubs in the area. These days they faced little competition. Only the fancifully named Dragonfly clan, headed by the formidable Masako Matsuda, posed any real challenge. Harada sensed a showdown in the offing. Rumours of war circulated on the streets of Kabuki-cho. But that was another story.
Koichi Miyazaki was a psychopath. A pimp with a penchant for violence, he literally enjoyed his monstrous reputation. And, right now, he was on Harada's tail. Harada was into the Uchida clan for ¥15,000,000. If he couldn't come up with the money, Miyazaki would take it out of his hide. And Harada had seen what that bastard was capable of. Harada had spent the last week ducking Miyazaki.
In a way it wasn't that hard. With his peroxide blond, razor-cut hairstyle and trademark gold incisor encrusted with an enormous, gaudy diamond, Koichi Miyazaki didn't exactly blend into the background. His brash fashion sense hardly qualified as camouflage either. A pursuer you could see coming a mile away hardly had the element of surprise on his side. But Harada didn't underestimate Miyazaki. Like most psychos Miyazaki was a machine, programmed with a kind of robotic tenacity. His boss, Toshiro Uchida, simply wound him up and pointed him in the right direction. Harada realised his luck could only hold out for so long. He knew Miyazaki would never give up. And he couldn't be bought off or reasoned with either. The psychotic peacock reminded Harada of the homicidal cyborg from the movie The Terminator.
Harada knew that sooner or later Miyazaki would catch up with him. The situation looked desperate. And desperate times called for drastic action. That was what brought Harada to Dogenzaka tonight, staking out the Cosmic Soda love hotel. He had one last trick up his sleeve. It was a gamble.
But Takeshi Harada was determined to play the winning hand.
Retired Husband Syndrome
The cab dropped Akihiro Honda and Reiko Yamamoto off at the Cosmic Soda love hotel shortly before 11:00 p.m. They approached the building's modest portico arm in arm.
Just like a regular couple, Harada observed, almost tempted to laugh.
Harada lit another cigarette. The nicotine helped him concentrate. He wondered why he needed it. Few things focused the mind like the threat of physical violence. And the prospect dominated his thoughts these days. He took another shot of Taiwanese bourbon. The booze tasted vaguely of gasoline. But it helped steady his nerves. And so did the gun.
Harada carried a SIG-Sauer P226 semi-automatic handgun. He wore it in a shoulder holster, a lethal weight over his heart. As a private detective he was licensed to carry a concealed weapon. He doubted he'd need it tonight. But you could never really tell. And with Koichi Miyazaki breathing down his neck, he was glad to have the SIG for company. Harada didn't want to dwell on that now. He watched the man and woman strolling towards the Cosmic Soda love hotel.
A short, insignificant-looking man, Akihiro Honda stood a mere five feet and three inches tall. His hair had turned salt-and-pepper grey. A large bald patch extended from the crown. His powerful spectacles had thick lenses that resembled goggles. He wore a dark blue business suit and nondescript grey raincoat—a typical salary man. The contrast between him and his companion could scarcely have been greater.
Reiko Yamamoto was twenty-six years old. Tall and elegant, she seemed to tower a full eight inches over her client in her expensive stiletto-heeled boots. She wore a black leather coat with black fur trim around the collar and cuffs. Long black hair framed her perfectly symmetrical features like a sleek veil. Her flawless complexion glowed under the streetlights like a glamorous actress illuminating a drab film set with her radiant presence.
Reiko had been working as a prostitute for several years. But she looked so classy nobody would guess. Reiko wouldn't have appeared out of place at the most high-tone society function. And that was the key to her success, her phenomenal popularity. Nominally, at least, she remained a freelance operator. Most months she could expect to earn in excess of ¥4,000,000—excluding the percentage she kicked back to Masako Matsuda's Dragonfly clan. Reiko planned to retire before the age of thirty with her own house and business—possibly a bar, restaurant or beauty parlour; she had yet to decide. If she continued this way, Harada guessed she'd achieve her ambition. Considering his own financial difficulties, he experienced a brief stab of envy.
Akihiro Honda looked nervous. He glanced over his shoulder as he held the door open for Reiko, worried about being spotted entering a rabu hoteru like Cosmic Soda. Harada almost felt sorry for the mousy little bastard. Almost. But compassion was at a premium these days. Takeshi Harada had problems of his own.
And Akihiro Honda was definitely part of the solution.
At forty-seven years old Akihiro Honda could have passed for sixty. He worked as a senior manager with a major IT company with responsibility for overseas development. It wasn't just a job. Like the majority of salary men, Akihiro's career demanded the absolute discipline of a religious vocation. It consumed his life.
Honda had been married for twenty years. He had three children—two daughters and a son. He seldom spent more than a few hours a month in their company. The children were teenagers now, their lives a closed book. And his wife, Michiko, remained a mystery to him. They hadn't spoken in years. Officially they shared the same bedroom. But he usually slept in his den.
Akihiro and Michiko pursued separate interests. He had assembled sizeable regiments of hand-painted, lead soldiers—Imperial Japanese troops and US marines. During his brief periods of leisure time he re-staged the carnage of Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Okinawa, replicating mass murder in miniature. Michiko collected stuffed animals. Over the years her hobby had become an obsession. Cartoonish woodlands creatures—fluffy bunnies and cute kittens—filled the bedroom they nominally shared. It resembled a child's room. Michiko's cuddly menagerie disturbed Akihiro. Its overwhelming scale implied a profound loneliness. But neither of them dared broach the subject. They were products of a generation—the last of the so-called 'baby boomers'—who had never been taught how to express their feelings.
Salary men like Akihiro Honda had been rigorously indoctrinated with Japan's stern work ethic. The overriding importance of loyalty to the company had been drilled into them. It superseded everything else—including family. Women like Michiko had been raised to aspire to nothing more than a life of domesticity, bearing and raising children. Their generation still frowned on divorce. And so these dismal relationships continued. Akihiro and Michiko Honda were not unusual. Many middle-aged couples led separate lives of mutual isolation and self-absorption. They had been programmed that way. Though it remained almost two decades away, they both dreaded Akihiro's retirement. The very idea of sharing each other's company twenty-four hours a day every day terrified them. The problem had become a recognised social phenomenon. A doctor named Noburo Kurokawa had coined a term for it.
Retired Husband Syndrome.
Kurokawa attributed the condition with a catalogue of serious physical and psychological symptoms—including suicidal depression. In such extreme cases the wives usually resorted to taking their own lives. In fact, Kurokawa had diagnosed the syndrome almost exclusively in women. The husbands remained reluctant to seek help and endure the shame it entailed. But Akihiro Honda had devised his own therapy. And Reiko Yamamoto administered the treatment.
A Sadistic Ritual
The Marquis Suite was one of Cosmic Soda's most popular attractions. Its décor inspired by the lurid fantasies of Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, it came equipped with all the paraphernalia essential for BDSM role-playing games. It featured a set of stocks, a whipping block, a cross with handcuffs and leg-irons, and a king-size bed with restraints attached to its sturdy, metal frame. The colour scheme was predominantly black, augmented with touches of scarlet—the precise colour of blood.
Heavy velvet drapes trimmed with silver brocade covered the windows. Reproductions of Felicien Rops' blasphemous series of prints, Les Sataniques, hung from the walls. These pornographic masterpieces parodied the pious sanctimony of Catholic mystery. They depicted Christ's passion as a sadistic ritual of occult initiation. Recessed lighting fixtures provided the Marquis Suite's ambient illumination. The crimson glow suggested the atmosphere of a sacrilegious shrine. The interior designers had captured the desired effect perfectly—the decadent illusion certain customers craved.
SM scenarios appealed to many of Cosmic Soda's patrons, which accounted for the Marquis Suite's enduring popularity—despite the price. The management charged ¥100,000 for a one-hour kyukei. Those who could afford it paid gladly. And Akihiro Honda was no exception. As well as shelling out the standard ¥300,000 rental for the Marquis Suite, Honda paid Reiko an additional ¥200,000. Some might have considered it extortionate—but not Akihiro. He had enjoyed three previous kyukei at the Marquis Suite with Reiko. And rest was the last thing on his mind.
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather...Whiplash girl-child in the dark—
The Velvet Underground's psychedelic masterpiece Venus in Furs drifted through the Marquis Suite. It provided the perfect accompaniment to the rituals.
Kiss the whip—and now bleed for me.
Reiko Yamamoto stood in the middle of the room. She wore a pair of shiny black, stiletto-heeled boots; fishnet stockings with a black suspender belt; skimpy black latex briefs, and a black rubber corset that accentuated her perfect figure. A pair of long black satin gloves, an elegant eye mask, and a black velvet cloak lined with red silk completed the ensemble. Reiko resembled the seductive villain of a pornographic comic book— sexy and potentially deadly. She carried a long whip in her right hand. Her left hand gripped a leash attached to a studded dog collar around Akihiro's neck.
Akihiro grovelled on all fours at Reiko's feet—completely naked except for a leather codpiece with an opening at the crotch through which his penis protruded. A tight rubber hood with zippered slits for his eyes and mouth fitted over his head.
Wearing the haughty expression she'd perfected over the years, Reiko tugged at the leash. Responding obediently, Akihiro crawled around the floor, yelping like a startled lap dog. Like many men in positions of authority he embraced the opportunity to shed the burden of responsibility in the most extreme and symbolic manner imaginable. Reiko specialised in BDSM role-playing games. She never engaged in conventional sexual intercourse with her clients. Her talent as a dominatrix proved far more lucrative.
And occasionally she even enjoyed it.
Reiko watched Akihiro scampering around her stiletto-heeled feet like a frisky terrier. She raised the whip and cracked it across Honda's back. Made from a special kind of plastic, the whip emitted a satisfying thwack when it came into contact with flesh. Designed to do no real damage, it temporarily striped the victim's skin, but the wheals faded rapidly. The whip left no lasting evidence to betray her client's...indiscretion when he returned home to his wife. Of course, Reiko had no way of knowing that Akihiro and Michiko Honda hadn't seen each other naked for many years. And it was none of her concern. She really couldn't care less.
As she thrashed Akihiro efficiently, Reiko's thoughts wandered. She anticipated an imminent trip to Omotesando. The doyens of fashion—Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Armani—attracted millions to the tree-lined boulevard that ran through Harajuku and Aoyama. Reiko loved the stylish boutiques and the atmosphere of transcendent glamour. Her spending binges frequently exceeded ¥1,000,000. She visualised Tokyo's chic Valhalla with the dreamy serenity of a pilgrim contemplating the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokkaido, the traditional road to enlightenment.
Salary men like Akihiro Honda financed Reiko's extravagant shopping sprees. They were incapable of intimacy, too screwed up to fuck their own wives. That was why they came to her. Perhaps they deserved to be pitied.
But nothing came free in this life. Perversion incurred a price. And Akihiro Honda would have to pay it. The ancient Romans had a saying that described it perfectly.
Reiko and Akihiro played many games during their three-hour kyukei in the Marquis Suite. Bondage. Humiliation. Akihiro submitted eagerly to his stern mistress. But the final act was the piece de resistance Akihiro truly relished.
A large black cross, equipped with handcuffs and leg irons, dominated the Marquis Suite. Akihiro leaned against the cross and assumed a cruciform posture.
Just like Jesus, Reiko thought, contemplating the traditional portrayal of Christ's crucifixion as she fastened the restraints over his wrists and ankles. Reiko considered it curious that a philosophy that preached universal brotherhood and the infinite love of a compassionate god should adopt such a violent symbol. What a hideous depiction of torture. She appreciated its accepted meaning—the virtue of self-sacrifice, the transcendence of death. But Reiko didn't buy it. She saw the ghastly icon for precisely what it was. Pornography. It didn't bother her, of course. Why should it? She had no axe to grind. After all, she wasn't a Christian. In fact, she found it rather amusing. Crucifixion fetish as the basis for a world religion—was that God's idea of a joke?
Reiko came from a very respectable middle-class family; her father was the managing director of a successful publishing company. After she finished high school, Reiko had attended Tokyo University, where she'd studied philosophy and psychology. She had been a promising student. But in less than a year she had abandoned the campus for the pornographic playground of Kabuki-cho and the life-lessons that only the soaplands, image clubs and pink salons could teach.
As a high school girl Reiko had dabbled in part-time prostitution on a regular basis—a common phenomenon referred to as compensated dating. Soliciting in Shibuya as a schoolgirl, Reiko discovered that she could easily charge an average ¥50,000 for a two-hour 'date'. Most of her clients had been respectable, middle-aged men—her father's age. In common with many of her classmates Reiko found this extra 'pocket money' essential when it came to purchasing the 'necessities' most girls her age considered indispensable. They were selling themselves to buy expensive designer goods—the Burberry scarves, Chanel bags and Gucci shoes so necessary to the popular set.
When she dropped out of college it wasn't long until Reiko resumed compensated dating. However, she soon realised that she didn't quite fit the bill anymore. The salary men who prowled the fashionable downtown bars had a keen eye for genuine schoolgirls. Simply wearing her old uniform wasn't enough. Inevitably Reiko gravitated towards the image clubs that specialised in role-playing games. Her natural talent ensured she quickly carved a successful niche for herself.
Reiko checked Akihiro's restraints. He remained securely shackled to the cross, his identity erased by the sinister black rubber mask. A patina of dried semen had congealed on his bare belly and thighs. His penis dangled from the open crotch of his leather codpiece. It was hardening already. His appearance implied a clear relationship with the framed reproductions of Felicien Rops' Les Sataniques hanging on the walls: obscene inversions of the chaste suffering celebrated by the Catholic church.
Reiko wondered about Christ's passion, the atrocity of Golgotha. Christians believed he endured this terrible ordeal to take upon himself the sins of the world. What a daunting thought. If God could treat his only son that way, then what hope did the rest of humanity have? Luckily, Reiko didn't believe in God. Few people did, really.
However, like the majority of the population she still occasionally made the odd trip to temple and shrine. But her visits to the Shinto shrine of Hanazono-jinja close to her regular haunts in Golden Gai and the Tenryu-ji Buddhist temple near Shinjuku Station had nothing to do with religious devotion. The prayers and little tokens she offered were expressions of self-interest. Belief didn't come into it. She was simply hedging her bets. But where was the harm in that? After all, everybody else did it. Women anxious to conceive left little dolls at the altar of the Kosodate Kannon, the bodhisattva associated with fertility—hardly an act of selfless piety.
Even the gods had their price, Reiko decided. They were hardly in a position to judge anyone—even prostitutes. It was a gratifying realisation. She hoped they were watching now. They wouldn't be the only ones.
Reiko zipped the eye and mouth slits of Akihiro's tight rubber mask shut and inserted a couple of black plastic straws into his nostrils. He could breathe only as long as the straws remained unobstructed. That was all part of the game. His penis rose steadily. Reiko gazed down at the dark shaft of hardening gristle and imagined the lurid fantasies forming behind his mask. She doubted he could anticipate the climax of tonight's performance.
Reiko crossed the floor and retrieved her black Prada handbag. She produced her mobile phone. It was a chic number that incorporated a camera capable of recording and transmitting digital video footage. She switched it on and placed it upright against an ornate candelabra, ensuring she and Akihiro remained in shot. Everything was ready.
Takeshi Harada looked down at the luminous screen of his mobile phone, scrutinising the video footage transmitted from the Marquis Suite. He wondered how he looked. Like a dingy little voyeur getting off on his own private sex show. It made him feel seedy—but that couldn't be helped.
At least I haven't got a hard-on, he thought glumly. He imagined what would happen if a couple of uniforms decided to hassle him right now. Takeshi Harada—the tarnished golden boy of the department—booked on some trumped-up morals charge. How the mighty have fallen. His ex-colleagues down at the Bureau of Detectives would've eaten it up with relish. They'd have pissed themselves laughing
Fuck that! Harada thought vehemently. Sure, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He knew that. But what choice did he have? And maybe this was a new low—even for him. But this time he'd just have to roll with the punches.
This is business—pure and simple, Harada reminded himself. Nothing else.
He glanced down at the bright screen again, as Reiko Yamamoto went through her paces with Akihiro Honda. Poor gormless bastard, Harada thought harshly. Still, it looks like he's having a good time at least. That Reiko—she really does know how to put on a show. He debated whether or not to light another cigarette, but decided against it. No time. And, besides, he'd seen enough. And recorded it. Digital Decadence.
Harada climbed out of the car. It had started to rain. He'd been so preoccupied that he hadn't even noticed. So much for your observational skills, Takeshi, he chided himself, turning up the collar of his olive green raincoat.
Then he noticed something plastered to the Toyota's windshield—a typical delivery health flyer. He peeled it off. The leaflet featured a photograph of a pretty young girl—she couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen—dressed in a typical high school uniform. Her plaid skirt looked too short, exposing too much thigh. She pouted at the camera, her lips painted bright red. Harada read the caption:
HI, MY NAME IS MIKI. I'M A 16-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL GIRL. I'M LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO MEET ME FOR AN ENJO KOSAI ARRANGEMENT. I AM 165 CENTIMETRES TALL AND I WEIGH 42 KILOS. I THINK I AM PRETTY CUTE AND MY PRICE IS ¥50,000.
The flyer went on to list Miki's mobile phone number and e-mail address. Harada crumpled it into a soggy wad and tossed it aside. Had someone stuck it on his windshield while he was still sitting behind the wheel? And he hadn't noticed? Some detective! Miki herself could have sashayed past, ripped off her plaid skirt and waggled her cute little ass in his face for all he knew. Shit, he was losing it big time.
I'm looking for someone to meet me for an enjo kosai arrangement.
Aren't we all?
Only the price mattered.
¥50,000 satisfied chicks like Miki—kind of a bargain really. They just wanted enough money to buy all the designer crap and gadgets their generation craved. Their concept of prostitution—enjo kosai—bordered on naiveté: a brief erotic transaction that guaranteed acceptance by the popular kids. Yes, it meant that much to them. Experience had taught Harada far harsher lessons than that. We're all whores, he realised. We're all for sale. And the older you get, the less you have to sell.
Paradoxically that's when you hiked up the price. You had to. Sometimes it was more than just a question of greed or faltering vanity. When you got right down to it, it was a matter of survival. And then it became a test. You had to get creative. Yes, that was the real challenge. Harada recognised that—more than most.
But Takeshi Harada had lived long enough to dream up a few new tricks. And tonight his price would be more than anything a deluded teenager like Miki could charge. Harada walked towards the entrance of Cosmic Soda. His scalp felt damp as the rain pelted down, moisture trickling down his neck. But he scarcely noticed.
It was time for the endgame.
Darkness engulfed Akihiro Honda. He was suffocating. And he loved it.
Akihiro had discovered the joys of breath play several years earlier. The whipping and systematic degradation he'd already endured were little more than foreplay—preparation for the main event.
Pinching the tubes she'd inserted into his nostrils, Reiko cut off Akihiro's air supply for three minutes at a time. Akihiro held his breath for as long as he could. Two-and-a-half minutes. For the remaining thirty seconds he found himself gasping, his chest burning like a blast furnace.
And then Reiko would release her grip on the straws, allowing Akihiro to inhale deeply, filling his aching lungs. Super-oxygenated blood rushed simultaneously to his head and groin. His heartbeat accelerated rapidly. As Reiko repeated the process, Akihiro's state of arousal intensified. He sported an impressive erection. His penis jutted aggressively from the open crotch of his leather codpiece, its bulbous head dark and angry. A droplet of milky lubricant oozed from its tight lips, an opalescent jewel. He was poised on the brink of orgasm.
Reiko glazed the length of the whip with KY jelly and coiled the slimy black plastic around Akihiro's bloated cock. As she tightened the whip, an immense reservoir of blood gathered at the base of Akihiro's penis, boiling with volcanic intensity. Reiko postponed his explosion until it became unbearable. Judging her moment perfectly, she pinched the straws closed, cutting off Akihiro's air supply again.
Straining against the handcuffs and leg-irons that transfixed him to the cross, Akihiro finally ejaculated. A white-hot jet of semen spurted across the room. Liquid fire rushed through his veins. Scarlet curtains descended behind his eyes.
Akihiro sagged in his restraints, his lust utterly depleted now. He felt drained, purged of tension and fear—at least for a while. And that was good enough.
Breathing heavily, Akihiro waited for Reiko to unfasten the restraints. Thirty minutes of the three-hour kyukei remained. They usually shared a glass or two of champagne after the games concluded. A bottle of reasonable vintage chilled to perfection in an ice bucket. His mouth and throat dry, Akihiro anticipated it eagerly.
But Reiko didn't release him. She cut off his air again.
Taken by surprise, Akihiro had no opportunity to hold his breath. Now he really was suffocating. This time he didn't enjoy the experience.
He felt genuinely afraid. His thoughts raced. What was going on? Had Reiko taken leave of her senses? Was she actually trying to kill him? Akihiro struggled frantically, panicking. The handcuffs grazed his wrists as he tugged against them. Is this it? Akihiro wondered, despairing. Is this how I'm going to die?
And he thought about his wife—poor, lonely Michiko.
How would she react when she learned that her dull husband had died in such sordid circumstances? Would she be distraught? Horrified? Embarrassed?
Or would she be relieved?
Akihiro's eyes rolled up in their sockets, showing white behind the zippered slits of his tight rubber mask. Sweat bathed his face. He could taste it. Only the handcuffs and leg-irons kept him upright as he began to lose consciousness.
And then the straws were removed from his nostrils.
Akihiro Honda breathed deeply. He felt confused, his thoughts in chaos. He breathed in and out rapidly, swallowing desperate gulps of air. His lungs felt ready to explode through his ribcage. His head spinning, he managed to resist the urge to vomit.
The hood was ripped from his head.
Stiff with sweat and gel, Akihiro's hair stood up comically. His flushed face glistened with perspiration.
A stranger confronted him.
It was a man.
He was the one that nearly killed me, Akihiro realised—not Reiko.
Takeshi Harada couldn't suppress a smug grin as he lifted his mobile phone level with Akihiro Honda's bewildered face. He took a moment to focus and snapped a still, digital picture. It was cheap shot, but Harada couldn't resist it as he remarked:
THE PORNOGRAPHER'S TRAGEDY
A Philosophical Experiment
“Sex and violence are intimately linked. They define the brief and bloody intervals of our lives. Of course, you already know that, don’t you, Stephen? Sex and violence remain your stock in trade. And you’ve profited handsomely from them. Haven't you?” The Samaritan paused, and then added: “So please forgive me, if I'm preaching to the converted.”
Darkness filled the basement. A palpable sense of menace evoked the oppressive atmosphere of a medieval dungeon, the subterranean torture chamber of a vicious Inquisition. Stephen Fletcher-Smyth lay on a cold steel table. It bore a striking—and disquieting—resemblance to an autopsy slab. Completely naked; his arms and legs widely spread, leather straps bound his chest, wrists and ankles. He remained helpless—at the Samaritan’s mercy.
“So, perhaps we should discuss something else—” the Samaritan continued, checking Fletcher-Smyth's restraints. “Any suggestions?”
A ball gag filled Fletcher-Smyth's mouth.
This would remain a one-way conversation.
“I know,” the Samaritan decided. “Let’s talk about pain—”
The Samaritan moved across the floor, merging with the shadows. He paused at a metal workbench arrayed with a series of pristine surgical instruments. Selecting a bone saw, he took a moment to assess its weight, mentally rehearsing the imminent ritual.. The blade gleamed, lending the word pain a terrible gravity.
“Pain is precious. Necessary,” the Samaritan announced. “But few people today understand that. Let’s take you for example, Stephen. Philistines like you calculate the value of pain in vulgar, commercial terms. I daresay you’re one of those deluded souls who subscribes to the fashionable lie that there’s a thin line between pain and pleasure. Curious how many people actually believe that. It’s a complete fallacy, of course. As I shall demonstrate presently, a vast—immeasurable—gulf separates pain and pleasure. Consider this a philosophical experiment—”
Shaking his head, the Samaritan replaced the bone saw. The procedure required a more suitable tool—a precise instrument.
“Pain is precious for one simple reason, Stephen,” the Samaritan elaborated. “Because it transforms us. All cultures—all the world’s religions—have recognised this since the dawn of time. But today we live in a world contaminated by moral cowardice. It abnegates humanity's true spiritual nature and condemns us to the eternal wilderness of despair. The archons of this modern heresy have created an insidious doctrine—a litany of lies—designed to seduce us. We listen to the corrupt because they tell us precisely what we want to hear. And when we collude in their toxic dogma we deny ourselves the transcendence of redemption. And that is why pain matters. It matters because it is an essential aspect of passion.”
Dressed entirely in black, the Samaritan wore heavy-duty overalls, sturdy boots and leather gauntlets. An oilskin rain-slicker draped over his shoulders like a cape. A mask concealed his features, enhancing his ominous appearance. Moulded from black ceramic, the mask encased the Samaritan’s entire head. It had two faces—one at the front, the other at the back. It resembled the disguise adopted by the devious court composer, Salieri, in the film Amadeus: the symbolic representation of Comedy and Tragedy associated with classical theatre. A wide-brimmed black hat—the galero traditionally worn by members of the Catholic clergy—completed the bizarre ensemble. Selecting a scalpel from the collection of surgical instruments, the Samaritan held it up to the light and examined it critically. The grinning face of Comedy beamed approvingly.
Fletcher-Smyth gasped, his heart racing, as the Samaritan approached. The scalpel twinkled in his captor's right hand. Clear plastic tubes inserted under his armpit and into his groin steadily drained the blood from Fletcher-Smyth's veins. Siphoned into a series of glass vessels—standard laboratory equipment—the hot crimson liquid gurgled audibly. Fletcher-Smyth's rapid heartbeat accelerated the process. Despite the loss of blood, he remained conscious—aware of his surroundings, his complete vulnerability. His flesh assumed a ghastly pallor.
“The concept of passion—the literal meaning of the word itself—has been totally debased,” the Samaritan continued, staring at Fletcher-Smyth's pale skin, assessing his condition. “Most people believe passion implies romantic infatuation or the soulless act of fucking. It is neither.”
Fletcher-Smyth shuddered as the Samaritan’s fingers moved across his torso, exploring the potential of his naked flesh. Confused and terrified, he listened to the Samaritan’s strange monologue, unable to comprehend its meaning.
“Passion is pain. Passion is suffering. Only through suffering can we transcend the limitations of the flesh and purge the taint of moral corruption. Passion purifies us.”
Fletcher-Smyth winced as the Samaritan leaned forward, his left hand resting on his clammy chest, and whispered into his ear:
“And without pain how can we suffer? Without suffering how can we be redeemed?”
Hysterical with panic, Fletcher-Smyth struggled against his restraints, as if grasping for the first time the full implications of his captor’s sinister rhetoric.
“I know you are afraid,” the Samaritan said, stroking Fletcher-Smyth's sweat-drenched brow. “That is only to be expected. Fear is part of the process. The Saviour himself experienced a moment of doubt as he prayed in Gethsemane on the eve of the Crucifixion—the advent of his passion.”
Fletcher-Smyth's body stiffened as the Samaritan made the initial incision at the base of his sternum. He attempted to scream, but the ball-gag muffled his cries.
“Embrace your fear, Stephen. Befriend the pain. And the suffering yet to come,” the Samaritan urged his squirming victim. His voice sounded strangely humane. “The passion will be exquisite. Illuminating—”
Fletcher-Smyth sagged weakly as the Samaritan discarded the scalpel and turned away. He watched his tormentor select a knife that resembled a ceremonial dagger from the array of surgical instruments. Fear consumed Stephen Fletcher-Smyth. His eyes bulged as he looked at the knife. For a moment the fear eclipsed everything—even the pain.
The Samaritan loomed over his victim once more. Darkness gathered in the eye slits of his mask as he gazed down into the bloody wound, apparently transfixed. For a moment the knife remained poised above the welcoming incision, a scarlet canyon filled with molten rubies. Its naked vulnerability suggested the lethal carnality of an erotic holocaust. And then the blade descended. Indescribable agony convulsed Fletcher-Smyth's body, suffering beyond endurance.
The Samaritan completed the ritual methodically, taking his time like a conscientious sadist. Waves of pain wracked Fletcher-Smyth's body as he saw Death smiling at him through a blood-red haze. The Samaritan’s voice expressed a terrible sincerity as he observed:
“You understand now, don’t you, Stephen? Without suffering there is no salvation. That is why I have to hurt you. How else can I save you?”
Detective Chief Inspector James Verlaine arrived at Hampstead Heath shortly after 8.00 am. The pallid disc of the sun resembled a dim lantern suspended precariously against the hostile grey sky. A low mist lingered—cold and oppressive.
Several other officers—uniformed cops and plain-clothes men—had arrived ahead of Verlaine. A large Scene of Crime vehicle stood parked on a low slope by a dense copse of trees. The SOC forensics team, dressed in hooded white overalls, cordoned the area with lengths of yellow tape.
Verlaine walked up the hill and noticed Detective Sergeant Jack Bannen loitering near the woods where the SOC team concentrated its efforts. Smoking a cigarette, Bannen engaged in casual conversation with a couple of junior detectives. Noticing Verlaine, Bannen acknowledged him with a slight wave.
“So, Jack, what’ve we got?” Verlaine asked. “The message from Dispatch was vague. Though it looks like we’re pulling out all the stops—”
“Vague?” Bannen replied. “Can’t say I’m surprised. I guess they didn’t want to risk broadcasting all the gory details over an open circuit.”
“It’s that bad—?”
“See for yourself—” Bannen suggested. He finished his cigarette and tossed it onto the damp grass just outside the area enclosed behind a flimsy barrier of dayglo plastic ribbon emblazoned with the words POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS. A grim expression darkened his hard features.
Verlaine was the operations chief of an elite squad based at an anonymous suite of offices on London's South Bank known as the Sensitive Crimes Division. The SCD functioned across all jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. Crimes of an especially deviant, pathological nature constituted a significant proportion of the division's caseload. It also investigated incidents that incorporated a political—potentially subversive—dimension. In such cases the SCD liaised closely with the security services—both Special Branch and MI5. Consequently much of the red tape that hampered the regular police did not apply to the SCD. National Security legislation authorized the unit to invoke a complete media blackout, ensuring its more delicate operations remained shrouded in secrecy.
A senior detective with over twenty years' experience, Verlaine considered the prohibition a regrettable but necessary evil. Instinctively he felt uncomfortable with police state tactics. But experience had taught him to question—if not completely distrust—the dubious merits of press reporting in serious criminal cases. Sensational editorial policies adopted by both the print and electronic media treated crime reporting as salacious entertainment, a lurid form of violent pornography. Eager to exploit every sordid detail, these irresponsible hacks frequently hindered—and occasionally even compromised—ongoing investigations. The “Wearside Jack” débâcle—the highly-publicized hoaxer who led the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper astray, enabling Peter Sutcliffe to continue his reign of terror—epitomized the problem.
And, as he made his way through the woods to a small clearing, Verlaine realised this was another of those times when a baying horde of tabloid hacks would prove more unwelcome than ever.
Completely naked, the man's body assumed an upright posture, suspended against a tree. Leather thongs bound his crossed wrists above his head. The attitude implied a gesture of abject submission. Verlaine studied the dead man's face. Its expression looked oddly quiescent—peaceful—evoking a state of transcendent serenity. The detective perceived no trace of suffering there. Obviously the result of extreme blood loss, the body's dramatic pallor exuded a spectral aura—the incandescent radiance of a cemetery angel. Wreathed in icy mist, the corpse briefly resembled one of those melancholy sentinels maintaining its solitary vigil over a neglected Victorian churchyard. The closest and most famous—Highgate cemetery—occupied a picturesque spot little more than a mile away. The cadaver's disposition suggested an obvious, erotic dimension. A clear-cut sex crime? Verlaine wondered, reluctant to jump to conclusions. It might well have been a sex crime. But the detective could see nothing clear-cut about this one.
The dead man had been shot with arrows.
Three arrows penetrated the victim’s chest close to the heart. Another pierced his left upper arm. A fourth protruded from his right side just below the rib cage. Had the killer used the poor bastard as target practise? Who were they dealing with—a sadistic William Tell?
A deep incision ran from the base of the dead man’s sternum to his shaved groin. Neatly sutured, it resembled the work of an expert. The meticulous stitching reminded Verlaine of how pathologists sew up dissected cadavers following post-mortem examinations. Something about that troubled him.
“So, what d‘you reckon, boss?” Bannen asked, watching as Verlaine examined the body.
“Well, he wasn’t killed here,” Verlaine observed, indicating the earth around the corpse’s bare feet. “If he'd sustained those injuries on this spot, the ground would be drenched with blood. And check out the body, too. There isn’t a speck—gravitational droplets or conventional spatter.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” Bannen concurred. “How d’you think it went down?”
“Notice the bruising and abrasions around the wrists and ankles. The killer restrained and murdered the victim elsewhere. He did that—” Verlaine indicated the sutured gash “—and waited for the victim to bleed out. Then he sewed the poor bastard up, washed him, and brought him here.”
“You think he bled to death? “
“Well, obviously it's too soon to say definitively,” Verlaine qualified his earlier statement. “But just look at the body. I mean the colour—or distinct lack of it. I'd be willing to bet that a significant volume of blood—by which I'm guessing most of it—was lost. Maybe he didn't literally bleed to death. But there's something about this that suggests a very precise and deliberate method. Draining the blood—assuming that's what happened—might well have played a part in that kind of ritual.”
Bannen considered Verlaine's appraisal. “Yeah, it looks that way. Ritualistic. What about the arrows?”
“I'm not sure, but they look post-mortem to me.”
“Post-mortem? What would be the point of that?”
“How the hell should I know?” Verlaine replied, more harshly than he'd intended.
Bannen shrugged, a gesture of obvious resignation.
A moment passed.
“Well, assuming all that’s true,” Bannen resumed. “It begs the obvious question, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a fair point, Jack. Most murderers attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes. But this one—”
“Yeah, he’s rubbing our faces right in it, isn’t he? Cocky bastard!”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Verlaine remarked. “But maybe that's just part of the picture.”
“How do you mean?”
“Perhaps displaying the corpse like this is more than just some psycho’s way of giving us the old two-fingered salute. Maybe the act itself is…significant.”
“You mean he’s trying to tell us something?”
“I think it’s a distinct possibility,” Verlaine elaborated. “See how the body is positioned. The killer obviously wanted us to find it this way. It looks symbolic.”
“Symbolic of what?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Jack,” Verlaine admitted. “Maybe leaving the body here—at this precise location—has meaning in the killer’s mind.”
“Here on the Heath, you mean?” Bannen asked. “What are you getting at? You think this is a hate crime, an anti-gay thing?”
“A hate crime?”
“Well, yeah. This whole area is popular with the gay community. Cruising, right? International websites promote it to foreign visitors. I don’t know if you’d call them sex tourists as such. But you get my drift—”
“Cruising, huh?” Verlaine was well aware of the place’s reputation. Who wasn’t? But he hadn’t considered the possibility. The staging of the murder suggested an altogether more sinister dimension. He glanced at the corpse’s pale genitalia, withered in the cold morning air. A hate crime? It might be a mistake to dismiss the possibility too hastily. “I guess you could have a point, Jack,” Verlaine admitted without much conviction, imagining a casual assignation gone horribly awry—an erotic transaction that ended in death.
“These things happen,” Bannen suggested.
Verlaine frowned and observed, “Yes. It kind of puts a new spin on the expression dangerous liaisons, wouldn't you say?.”
The SOC officers continued their forensic investigation. Verlaine watched as they set to work on the body. He realised his presence served no useful purpose. “C’mon, let’s go. We’ve got work to do, too—” he said, turning to Bannen. They walked down the hill to Velaine’s car.
Neither man spoke for a time, lost in morbid speculation.
Blood and Roses
The atmosphere in the pathology lab was grim. The place smelled of carbolic acid and formaldehyde. But another odour persisted no chemicals could disguise—the stench of death.
Over the years Verlaine had become accustomed to the autopsy process, but he didn’t relish it. And he found the experience even more distasteful whenever he visited this particular laboratory, located in the basement of a dilapidated Victorian building. The place exuded an air of neglect. Although he knew they were refrigerated, Verlaine could imagine the cadavers rotting in the steel cabinets that lined the walls, blooming malignantly like satanic mushrooms.
The naked body lay on a stainless steel slab, its pale flesh luminous in the sterile white light. It reminded Verlaine of a wax effigy. Several hours had passed since they’d discovered it ceremoniously displayed on Hampstead Heath. The victim had not been identified. Fingerprints and dental records were all they had to go on. Perhaps the autopsy would yield more clues.
Dr. Robert Ashton contemplated the body like an explorer surveying an uncharted landscape. “Well, Verlaine, whatever killed our friend, I can say with confidence it wasn’t these—” the pathologist indicated the five projectiles he’d removed from the body.
“It wasn’t the arrows, huh? I thought as much.”
“What led you to that conclusion?”
Verlaine pointed at the puncture marks where the darts had pierced the skin. “Call it an educated guess, Ashton. But the absence of blood or bruising around the wounds suggested as much.”
“In fact, judging by the superficial level of tissue damage—the lack of significant impact trauma—I would hazard to say they were inserted manually,” Ashton said. “Post-mortem, as you surmised. Suggests an intriguing possibility.”
“Very astute. Ever considered a career in forensic medicine, Verlaine? You could be a natural.”
“Not for an instant,” Verlaine replied without hesitation, appalled at the prospect. “I guess I don’t have the stomach for it.”
“No, it’s not to everybody’s taste,” Ashton observed. “By the way, technically speaking, these aren’t arrows.”
“They’re crossbow bolts.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” Ashton confirmed. “It’s a minor detail, but it might be significant as far as the criminal investigation is concerned.”
“Of course. It never hurts to know what kind of weapon we’re looking for—” Verlaine sounded less than enthusiastic. It could be a lead, but right now it seemed dismally slim.
“Now this is interesting—” Ashton inspected the livid incision marring the cadaver’s pale skin. “It looks like someone’s been pissing inside my territorial boundaries.”
“Looks like a professional job, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’ll be the judge of that—” the pathologist shot an impatient glare in Verlaine’s direction. Verlaine realized Ashton was serious about the killer’s encroachment into his area of expertise—and he didn’t take the intrusion lightly. Irritated by Ashton’s petulance, Verlaine stepped away and decided to let the procedure continue without further comment.
The pathologist selected a scalpel and began cutting through the sutures that puckered the wound. Once again Verlaine pondered the question nagging at him since he first encountered the corpse.
Why had the killer gone to so much trouble?
Ashton disposed of the killer’s fastidious needlepoint. He pushed his thumbs into the incision, pressing the flesh and fascia aside, widening the wound. Verlaine thought he looked like a child tackling an elaborately wrapped birthday present. Maintaining his distance, he wondered at the fascination this macabre parcel exercised over the pathologist’s imagination.
“Jesus Christ on a bike—” Ashton whispered, staring into the cadaver’s belly.
“What is it, Ashton?” Verlaine experienced a vague sense of apprehension. Something had startled the pathologist.
“I think you’d better see for yourself, Verlaine.”
Verlaine studied the corpse. It had been eviscerated, the guts scooped out. And the killer had replaced the entrails with something.
Verlaine blinked, doubting the evidence of his eyes. Was this an optical illusion, some trick of the light? He turned to the pathologist, unsure of what—if anything—to say: “Ashton, is this—?”
The pathologist ignored him and reached into the body to remove something. A curious expression on his face, he held the fragile object up to the light.
It was a rose—a single red rose.
Verlaine stared into the moist ripeness of the cadaver’s excavated belly.
Roses filled the ghastly cavern. Dozens of roses—densely packed—formed a macabre bouquet. The scarlet blossoms glistened, their petals damp with the rancid liquors of decay.
What the pathologist had unearthed transcended obscenity. The grotesque spectacle implied a perverse romantic gesture.
Verlaine glanced at Ashton. Their eyes locked. But words failed them. In the brief silence Verlaine became aware of a strange aroma—an insidious perfume beneath the disinfectant and formaldehyde. It felt somehow familiar.
All at once Verlaine realised it wasn’t one smell, but a noxious combination of two.
Blood and roses.
An imposing Gothic building constructed in the late nineteenth century, Cranleigh Manor occupied an idyllic pastoral setting two hours' drive from London. During the Second World War the military had commandeered the place and used it as a base for top secret psychological warfare operations. In the 1950s the Home Office acquired Cranleigh Manor and converted it into an asylum for the criminally insane. Today its formidable edifice housed some of the most dangerously unhinged minds in the country.
After passing through a series of elaborate security checks, Verlaine followed an orderly to the private office of the asylum’s senior psychiatric consultant, Dr. Cassandra Stark. A cold, functional space with white walls and minimalist black furniture, Dr. Stark's inner-sanctum initially suggested the sterile asceticism of a monastic retreat. A series of Dali prints adorned the pristine walls, subverting the impersonal atmosphere. They exuded the symbolic power of religious iconography, the transcendent dimensions of a higher reality.
“Inspector Verlaine, it’s been quite a while. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
The psychiatrist’s greeting seemed genuine enough. And yet Verlaine sensed a hint of irony beneath it. Was she enjoying a private joke—possibly at his expense? Verlaine couldn't decide, and had to admit—if only to himself—that he could never quite figure her out. True; it was a long time since they last met. But the enigmatic Cassandra Stark hadn’t changed at all as far as Verlaine could tell.
Dr. Stark was in her mid-forties, attractive in her own remote, inaccessible way. Tall and slim, she expressed an air of effortless refinement, the sophisticated elegance of a film noir movie siren. She had exquisite bone structure: perfect cheekbones, a slender nose and high forehead. Shoulder-length black hair accentuated her natural pallor. She looked as if she hadn’t ventured outside during the hours of daylight for years—a chic vampire prowling the corridors of her archaic Gothic asylum, a strange wraith with degrees in medicine and psychiatry.
As usual the psychiatrist dressed in a way that complemented the monochrome décor of her Spartan office: a knee-length black silk dress with a high collar, black stockings and stylish black shoes with a pristine white lab coat. Like a chameleon, she seemed to merge with her austere environment. Her elusive demeanour enhanced the illusion. She radiated an aura of sterile glamour. It seemed impenetrable, like armour. Only the Surrealist prints hinted at a skilfully concealed aspect of her nature—something obscure or even a little perverse.
And two other aspects of her appearance seemed somehow at odds with the overall impression of clinical professionalism she created.
Years earlier Dr. Stark had narrowly survived a serious car accident in which her father died. Sustaining a permanent and disabling injury to her left leg, the psychiatrist required the use of a cane. Obviously antique—ebony adorned with an exquisite silver top—the cane resembled the kind of flamboyant accoutrement a nineteenth century dandy might have considered de rigeur. One could imagine a foppish peacock like Wilde—or perhaps Aubrey Beardsley—flaunting a similar accessory. And she habitually wore dark glasses and black gloves. Verlaine had been acquainted with Dr. Cassandra Stark for more than a decade, consulting her on a number of cases. And he’d never once seen her without either the gloves or dark glasses. Behind those impenetrable shades he had no idea what her eyes actually looked like.
This apparent eccentricity—and the fact that she’d dedicated her life to the treatment of the hopelessly insane—had prompted some of her colleagues to devise an oddly appropriate nickname for the beguiling psychiatrist.
“Well, I wish I could say it was a social call.” Verlaine sat opposite the psychiatrist. “Unfortunately, it’s rather more…serious.”
“I’m intrigued.” Dr. Stark’s dark glasses rendered her true feelings indecipherable.
“Perhaps you’d care to take a look—” Verlaine pushed a thick manilla file across the desk. It contained details of the Hampstead Heath crime scene and subsequent post-mortem examination.
“Interesting—” Dr. Stark commented, after scanning the reports. “Doesn’t it look familiar to you, Inspector?”
“Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it before.”
A hint of sly amusement played about Dr. Stark’s exquisite red lips as she remarked, “Really? With a name like Verlaine, I might have expected you to exhibit a rather more romantic sensibility.”
“I was thinking of your namesake, the French poet Paul Verlaine. As a major figure in the Symbolist movement he might have appreciated the staging,” Dr. Stark explained, indicating the photograph that showed the dead man tied to a tree.
“How do you mean?”
“This may be total conjecture. But it strikes me as a recreation of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.”
“A martyr? Sorry to say I never paid much attention at Sunday school, Doctor.”
“Sebastian was a fifth century saint, born in Narbonne—part of the Roman province of Gaul. He was an archer attached to the personal bodyguard of the emperor Diocletian. When he converted to Christianity he was martyred by being tied to a tree and shot by his fellow archers. The victim’s posture is reminiscent of the traditional depictions of his death. Of course, it might just be coincidence.”
“No, I don't think it's coincidence,” Verlaine replied, shaking his head. “I had the feeling it was significant when I first saw how the killer had chosen to exhibit the body. It struck me as somehow...”
“Symbolic?” Dr. Stark anticipated.
“Yes. Precisely. Though exactly what the staging is intended to express...I was rather hoping you might have some ideas—”
“Has the victim's identity been established?”
“His name was Stephen Fletcher-Smyth. He worked as an executive with a major film production and distribution company based in London. We're making the usual enquiries into his background. Routine stuff. So far there's nothing to suggest anything that would have prompted someone to do something like this.”
“Yes, I see—” Dr. Stark examined the photograph more closely. “I notice the al fresco setting. Where did this happen?”
“The body was strung up on Hampstead Heath. But the actual murder took place elsewhere.”
“Hampstead Heath? That might be significant.”
“Saint Sebastian is regarded as something of a gay icon. It’s been suggested he was killed because of his homosexuality rather than his Christian faith. It could be important that the body was left at a location popular with the gay community.”
“You think it was a hate crime?” Verlaine asked, remembering his conversation with Sergeant Bannen.
“I doubt it,” Dr. Stark replied.
“Why? It looks to me like someone really had it in for Fletcher-Smyth.”
“True. But according to the autopsy report there’s no evidence to suggest he was a practising homosexual. And the killing occurred elsewhere—so we can discount the idea of a chance encounter that ended in murder. There's absolutely nothing here once might describe as casual.”
“I take your point. But there’s something else bothering you about the whole hate crime hypothesis, isn’t there?”
“Frankly, yes,” Dr. Stark agreed. “The degree of elaboration goes way beyond that. And, of course, what’s really significant is the specific reference to Saint Sebastian. This isn’t some random 'gay killing'. It’s intensely personal—as well as being deliberately symbolic. I doubt the average homophobic bigot is familiar with even the conventional version of Saint Sebastian’s death—let along the wealth of mythology attached to it.”
“How do you mean?”
“Over the years the erotic subtext of Saint Sebastian's death has appealed to various authors and artists. Some attached particular significance to the fact that he was an archer, which might lead one to interpret his martyrdom as an invocation of Eros, a pagan figure adopted by Christianity. In his autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask, the Japanese author Yukio Mishima admitted he first experienced orgasm while masturbating over a painting of Saint Sebastian. One variation of the story asserts that Sebastian and Diocletian were lovers, and the emperor only ordered his death after Sebastian rejected him. Presumably when Sebastian converted to Christianity he would also have accepted the faith's stern prohibition regarding homosexuality. A pagan like Diocletian would have recognised no such taboo. Mishima referred to this story when he posed as Sebastian in a series of photographs by Eikoh Hosoe entitled Ba-ra-kei which translates as Ordeal by Roses or Killed by Roses.”
“Killed by Roses?” Verlaine pounced on the remark. He shuffled through the photographs and selected an autopsy picture. It showed a close-up of Fletcher-Smyth's torso. The hollow body cavity contained dozens of red roses.
Dr. Stark stared at the photograph for several moments, considering the implications of such a bizarre act.
“Well?” Verlaine prompted. “What do you think it means?”
“I can’t give you a definitive answer. But I can hazard a guess.”
“Earlier you suggested this could be a hate crime. That’s definitely not the case.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Remember the story about Sebastian and Diocletian being lovers?”
“Well, in that version Sebastian survived the arrows. So Diocletian had him smothered with roses. The word rose is, of course, an anagram of Eros. That wasn’t an expression of hatred.”
“No? What was it then?”
“An act of love.”
“An act of love? Are you suggesting there was a sexual motive?” Verlaine asked.
“Not necessarily. There’s more to love than sex, Inspector,” the psychiatrist remarked cryptically. “And here we see an invocation of Eros—the god of love, desire and sex—merged with Thanatos, an ancient incarnation of death.”
“Sex and death? Without them I guess I'd be out of a job,” Verlaine rejoined.
“The sex drive and the death impulse are inextricably linked. Enmeshed,” Dr. Stark said. “It's a dialectical problem. Is desire the driving force of destruction? Are we programmed for annihilation? Until that question has been resolved...” she paused, apparently lost for a moment in wistful contemplation “...well, when that day comes, I suppose I'll be obsolete too.”
Verlaine packed his files and photographs, leaving copies with Dr. Stark. She’d agreed to review the material in greater detail and produce a psychological profile of the killer, a service she’d provided on several previous occasions. Verlaine appreciated her help, but felt dismayed when she added:
“When the killer strikes again I should see those files too. As much information as possible—no matter how innocuous or apparently irrelevant.” Dr. Stark used the plural crimes, anticipating a lethal spree.
“You’re sure the killer will strike again?” Verlaine responded. “As you said before, there’s obviously a personal dimension to the murder and its deliberate staging. This could be a one-off. Someone had a grudge against Fletcher-Smyth and decided to get creative—”
“It’s a possibility, I suppose,” Dr. Stark admitted. “You’re right about the personal dimension. But the extreme nature of the crime suggests much more than a simple case of revenge, if that’s what you’re thinking—no matter how creative the killer turns out to be.”
“How do you mean?”
“We’re dealing with a pathology characterised by obsession, an idée fixe driving the perpetrator. It’s a ritualistic cast of mind. And that suggests one thing—”
“That they feel compelled to repeat the act,” Verlaine anticipated.
“Precisely. It’s a phenomenon that transcends criminality—or even madness as most people understand it.”
“Beyond Bedlam, is that it?” Verlaine suggested.
“That’s as good a way as putting it as any, I suppose.”
“Maybe. But you’re the real expert, Cassandra.” Verlaine found himself staring into the psychiatrist’s dark glasses. He remembered the story of the original Cassandra, the tragic seer whose visions went unheeded by the citizens of Troy—until the city's complete destruction confirmed her dire predictions.
“One acquires a knack for these things,” Dr. Stark said. “Psychiatry isn’t an exact science. In fact, it’s hardly a science at all.”
The psychiatrist’s frank admission surprised Verlaine. “What would you call it?”
“I’m not sure. It’s too esoteric to satisfy the exacting disciplines of pure empiricism. It’s more of a craft. It’s been suggested that Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is a classic work of Surrealism. Though I’m loathe to call myself an artist, there’s more than an element of truth to that.”
Verlaine gazed at the Dali prints. The work of a visionary madman, they seemed to depict the disintegration of reality on a vast, apocalyptic scale.
“Intriguing, aren’t they?” Dr. Stark commented. “In Surrealistic circles it’s fashionable to dismiss Dali as a dilettante, a commercial sell-out. His detractors composed an anagram of his name—'Avida Dollars'—intended to express their contempt. But I still have a fondness for the old Catalonian. Take this one, for instance: The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. I'm sometimes inclined to see it as a metaphor for one of the most dangerous forms of deviant psychopathology.”
“Sorry, Cassandra. You’re losing me.”
“I take it you’re familiar with the myth of Narcissus—”
“The kid that fell in love with his own reflection and turned into a flower?”
“You’re talking about vanity, right?”
“It goes beyond that. Malignant narcissism holds the key to the nature of both the functional sociopath and the destructive psychopath. They believe the universe revolves exclusively around them. From their intensely self-centred perspective other human beings are just objects—rather like furniture. These types of personalities lack empathy. They manipulate relationships to accommodate their own selfish needs. In extreme cases they will commit acts of violence—and even murder—to fulfil trivial fantasies. It’s an expression of pure egotism, an eruption of what Freud called the Id, the beast in the basement of all our psyches. In fact Erich Fromm who coined the term malignant narcissism went even further than Freud.”
“What did he say?” Verlaine asked, sensing this might be important.
“According to Fromm, the condition represents 'the quintessence of evil...the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity,' Others have described the primary traits that characterise the disorder as 'joyful cruelty and sadism,'” Dr. Stark elaborated. She paused for a moment and then added: “Perhaps it's true. When the seeds of depravity are sown in such fertile soil maybe the flowers of unrepentant evil—Les Fleurs du Mal the poet Baudelaire celebrated—must inevitably bloom.”
“Flowers, again—” Verlaine stared at The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. “You’re saying that kind of thinking prompted Fletcher-Smyth's killer to do this—?” He tapped his right index finger on the autopsy photo displaying the victim’s body cavity stuffed with roses.
“It’s symptomatic of the basic mind-set.”
“And you call that an act of love?”
“I did say malignant narcissism.”
Verlaine fell silent. Dr. Stark had a point, but he didn’t have to like it. Sometimes he missed the more prosaic aspects of conventional police work. Maybe it would be fun to foil a bank robbery. Perhaps he might derive genuine job satisfaction busting an international narcotics ring. But the fact remained—he hadn't chosen that path.
“Why don’t you ask me, James?” Dr. Stark interrupted the detective’s thoughts.
“I beg your pardon—?”
Dr. Stark shuffled the photographs and reports. She seemed a little impatient, as if conducting a session with a difficult patient who deliberately resisted therapy. “You didn’t have to come here, did you, James? You know I maintain a private practise in London. You could have seen me there.”
Verlaine’s expression darkened. “Is he still here?”
“You know he is.”
A silence descended between them.
Finally Dr. Stark asked, “Would you like to see him? I think you should.”