The Killing Song
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
He couldn't take his eyes off her.
The last rays of the setting sun were slanting through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was a just a trick of light, that the ancient glass makers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this. But still, she was beautiful.
His mother was there in his memories suddenly. He was watching her sitting before her mirror as she readied to go out. He could remember the way the light of the dressing table lamp turned her white skin gold. And he could remember what she said as she painted her lips. Every woman, for just one moment in her life, should be able to be the most beautiful woman in the room.
He stared at the girl. The sun had set and the glow had faded. Her moment was gone.
He looked away, focusing on the music before him. Vivaldi, "The Four Seasons." He didn't need to read it. He knew every note by heart. He had played it a thousand times, so much that any pleasure he had ever taken from it had long ago died. As he played, he watched the faces of the audience. Tourists, mostly, and easily amused.
A pause in the music. They had finally come to the last movement, "Winter." Fifteen more minutes and he was free.
His eyes flicked to the violinist, then on cue, he drew his bow across the strings in short little bursts, the notes sounding like the cold chattering of teeth. There was little for him to do now, just keep a steady background beat, so he let his mind wander, let his eyes wander.
Back to the girl. She was in the front row and though it was dim now, he could still see her clearly. She was staring right at him, and her mouth was moving rhythmically, as if she were trying to sing along or speak without parting her lips. It took him a few seconds to realize that she was chewing gum. A surge of disgust moved through him. Why did all the American girls chew gum? Didn't they know it made them look like cows?
He looked away. He hated it when people weren't polite.
"So where are you taking me?"
He looked down at the girl. She laced her arm through his and snuggled closer. Her nose was red. The musicians had been warmed by the small space heaters at their feet, but there had been no such comforts for the audience in Sainte Chapelle. And now they were scattering quickly into the cold night, bound for the comforts of their four-star hotels or the nearest bistros.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I grabbed a sandwich before the concert. I'm not used to eating as late as people do here."
"Then a drink?"
She smiled. "Never too late for that."
He disentangled himself from her grasp and hoisted up his case. They started walking toward the bridge. As they crossed over to the left bank, a tour boat approached, its garish floodlights trained on the Seine's stone embankments, seeking out lovers in the shadows for the tourists' titillation. But it was too cold for anyone to be out tonight. The lights found only rats scurrying into their holes.
In a café on Boulevard Saint Michel, he steered her to a corner table. He carefully positioned the large black case out of the aisle. She pulled off her gloves and glanced around. "I guess they don't have real booze here," she said.
She sighed. "It's just that I've been here for two weeks and I am dying for a decent martini."
"You should have said something. We could have gone to Le Fumoir."
She shrugged. "That's okay. It's just that I don't really like wine all that much, you know? And it's so cold and I can't seem to get warm. No one told me Paris was going to be freezing."
"It's January," he said.
"Yeah, well, maybe I should have waited. April in Paris and all that stuff, right?"
He smiled then caught the waiter's eye. When the man came over, he ordered for both of them. When the waiter returned with the drinks, the girl stared down at hers.
"Vin chaud. Hot wine. Try it."
She set aside the cinnamon stick and took a sip. She smiled. "Good."
"They add spices to it. I'm glad you like it."
For the next half hour, he just listened. She loved to talkabout her job as a computer-something, about her six-toed cat Toby, about her boyfriend who had emptied their bank account and run off, which is why she had decided on impulse to come to Paris, about her dream to be a tennis pro at the Houston country club where her parents kept her on their membership so she'd meet a quality man and get her life in order.
"They never forgave me for divorcing Dean and not popping out four blonde babies," she said. This came after the third vin chaud.
He suspected she wanted him to ask her more about Dean, but he was tired of listening to her. He was even getting tired of looking at her, realizing now that whatever he had seen in her face before was gone. When he had spotted her this afternoon in the Tuileries, he had been immediately attracted to her. He had impulsively introduced himself and then invited her to be his guest at the concert.
But now, as he looked at her in the harsh light of the café, he realized she wasn't beautiful at all. True, she was blond and blue-eyed, but whenever she opened her mouth she became plain. He looked away, out the window at the people hurrying through the cold.
"So, how old are you?"
Her voice drew him back. "Does it matter?" he asked.
"I guess not." She finished the vin chaud and picked up the cinnamon stick. "I kind of like older guys. Especially when they look like you. Dean was blond. But I always had a thing for the tall, dark and handsome ones." Her eyes lingered on his then drifted toward the black case propped in the corner.
"You've got quite a big instrument there," she said with a smile.
He didn't answer.
"Is it heavy?"
"You get used to it," he said.
She was sucking on the cinnamon stick. For a long time she just stared at him, then she said, "Take me home."
He felt relieved. "Where are you staying?"
"No, I mean to your place."
When he hesitated, she countered with a smile. "I mean, why the hell not? It's my last night in Paris, right?" she said.
He knew that if he waited too long to answer, she would be insulted. A part of him didn't care. A part of him wanted to put her in a taxi and be rid of her. But the other part, that part of him that slept just below his consciousness, was coming alive. He could feel it, a dull humming sound in his brain that soon would echo in a vibration in his groin. He could repress it. He had before.
He stared at the girl. But why?
But he would not take her to his apartment on Ile Saint-Louis, even though it was just across the bridge. He would take her to the other place. It was, all after, what she deserved.
She was talkative on the long ride. But as the car descended the steep hill behind Sacré-Coeur and into the darkness, she grew silent.
He saw her staring at the empty streets and crumbling buildings awaiting demolition, at the slashes of graffiti on the metal shutters of the Senegalese restaurant. And at the Arab men in skullcaps who sat hunched in the white plastic chairs, their dark faces lit by the green fluorescent lights of the cafeteria. They were in the northern arrondisement called La Goutte d'Or, far from the cafés of the left bank, far from any notion of what the tourists believed the city to be. Goutte d'or. Drop of gold. Centuries ago, the name referred to the wine grown in the local vineyards. Now it was slang for the yellow heroin sold in bars and the backrooms of luggage stores.
He parked the car. The girl didn't move, so he got out and opened her door. She was staring at the battered steel door with the number forty-four above it.
"You live here?" she asked.
"It's cheap," he said.
He retrieved his black case from the backseat and held out his free hand. She hesitated then slipped her hand in his.
He hit the switch just inside the entrance door, illuminating a sagging staircase and peeling walls. He motioned and she started up ahead of him. At the fifth floor, he set the case down to get his key. The lights went out and she gasped.
"Don't worry," he said. "It's just the hall light. It's on a timer."
He unlocked the door and led her inside. He set the case aside, and watched her face as she took in the details of the room. A sagging futon, a metal bookcase holding a CD player and discs, an archway leading to a kitchen and an open door revealing the edge of a toilet.
"What's that smell?" she asked.
"Like...somebody's been cooking meat or something."
"Oh, there's a butcher shop downstairs," he said, unwinding his scarf and taking off his coat. "Would you like a drink?"
"Yes...no. I mean, no, if it's wine. And no water either. The water tastes weird here. You got any grass?"
"No, I'm afraid not." On his way to the kitchen, he closed the door to the bathroom. He uncorked a bottle and poured himself a glass of Bordeaux. He took a drink and pulled off his tie, watching her as she walked slowly around the room. She leaned in to peer at the titles of the CDs, then moved toward an alcove behind the shelf.
"Hey, you have two of them," she said as she reached into the alcove.
He was next to her in two quick strides, grabbing her arm. "Don't touch it!"
She gave a small cry and wrenched her hand free. "Why not?"
"The grease from your hands," he said. "It's bad for the strings."
She took a few steps away, rubbing her wrist. "Well, you touch it when you play. What's the difference?"
He took a breath and carefully took the cello from its dark corner. "I touch only the neck, never the body."
She was still frowning, like she was trying to decide something now. But he was the one who had decided. She didn't know this, of course. She was oblivious, not even smart enough to read this in his face. She just looked at him, like a dumb animal. Finally, she nodded toward the black case across the room, the one he had brought in from the car.
"So why do you have two of them?"
"That one is for others," he said. "This one is for me."
And for her.
She was staring hard at him now. Then she shrugged off her coat and tossed it on the floor. She plopped down on the futon and looked up at him with a smile.
"Play something for me," she said.
He stared at her, the cello resting against his chest. For the briefest moment, he considered it. He had never tried it that way before and the idea was intriguing. Would it feel different than the others? But why? She wasn't worth it. It would be like playing for a deaf person.
"No," he said.
"Why not?" she said.
"I don't feel like it." He carefully put the cello back in its corner. When he turned back, she had scooted down on the futon, and now she lay propped up on her elbows.
"So, how do you say it in French?"
"How do you say, 'let's fuck'?"
He was silent, staring at her breasts, clearly outlined beneath her blouse.
"Tell me," she said. "I bet it sounds really nice in French."
He turned away, picking up his wine glass and taking a drink.
"Come on, how do you say it?"
He shut his eyes.
She was laughing. "God, what's the matter? You're all red. Am I embarrassing you? Okay, you don't have to say it. Forget about that. All you have to do is just do it. Just fuck me, okay? And make it"
He threw the glass toward the futon. It shattered against the wall, spraying her white blouse red. She gave a yelp and her eyes widened as he came toward her. But even as he straddled her hips, her fingers were working on the buttons of his shirt and her mouth was opening eagerly to accept his.
But he didn't kiss her. He didn't take off her blouse or touch her breasts. He didn't even look at her face as he wrenched her skirt up over her hips, pulled the tights down her legs and wedged his knees between her thighs. At first, the roughness aroused her and she was panting as she helped him out of his clothes. She gave out a half-laugh, half-cry when he entered her and she wrapped her arms around his back, pulling him deeper inside her. But the more he pushed against her, the harder he tried, the softer he became.
She pushed against his chest. "Hey, hey," she said hoarsely. "Stop, okay? If you can't...hey, it's"
He slapped her and she let out a sharp cry. He sensed the change in her, felt her body retreating under him. He could almost smell the fear coming off her skin. But that didn't stop him. He kept pushing against her, ignoring her cries, waiting, waiting, waiting for the blessed release. But it did not come. It never did. Not this way.
He felt a sudden searing pain and fell back panting, holding his neck. He was so stunned that it took him several seconds to open his eyes, several more to realize what had happened. She had scratched him. And now she was inching back toward the wall, away from him.
His face was wet and warm. He looked at his bloody fingers then at the girl. She was staring at him as she pulled her skirt down.
"Look," she said, "maybe you should just take me back to my hotel, okay?"
"No," he said.
Her expression hardened. "Great. First you can't even get off and now you won't give me a fucking ride." She stood up and began pulling up her tights. "So much for the French being great lovers."
She kept talking, but he didn't hear her. He turned and went to the cello case. He unlatched it, and reached into the small pouch on the inside of the lid. He took his time as he decided which one to use. The Larsen D? No, she wasn't worth it. The Jargar A was too thin and he had never been able to count on it. The Spirocore C had a nice sharp attack.
Finally, he made his choice and closed the case. When he turned to face her, she was standing with her back to him, buttoning her blouse. He moved quickly, quietly. She didn't have time to turn, to react. He looped the steel string around her neck and gave a hard tug.
Her hands came up clawing. Her scream died into a gurgle. He pulled harder, bringing her back against his chest. He pulled on the string once, twice, enjoying her fear. He was careful not to pull the string too tight because he wanted this to last. And he knew just how much pressure was needed to hold her, to make her black out. But he also knew how to keep her alive. He closed his eyes, burying his face in her vanilla hair, smelling her animal fear.
Then, he gave the string a sharp jerk. The steel cut into her neck and she gave a violent quiver. Blood sprayed the wall above the futon. Finally, she went limp. He caught her beneath the arms before she fell and held her against his chest.
He scooped the body up in his arms and carried it to the bathroom. He put the body in the old bath tub and took a step back to look at it. For a second just one secondhe saw Hélène. But this one wasn't beautiful like .
And this one wasn't worth keeping.
He went back out, shutting the door. The spray of blood on the wall over the futon made him stop.
He had cut the carotid artery, and it had left a mess to clean. No matter. It would have to wait. Her blood was still warm on his hands and the hotness in his groin was building. He had to hurry now. If he didn't, the moment would be gone.
The room was cold on his naked body, but he was sweating in anticipation. He went to the corner and carefully pulled out the other cello, the beautiful one, The Goffriller Rosette. More than three hundred years old. So many great hands had caressed it. But no one else would ever play it now. No one else would ever hear it now. Except him.
He picked up his bow, took the cello to a chair and sat down. Setting the cello between his bare thighs, he rested it back against his chest. He cradled the cello's neck in his shoulder, the C-string tuning peg touching his ear. He paused, holding the bow over the strings, watching the blood drip from his cheek down onto the burnished maple. He closed his eyes imaging the molecules of his blood being absorbed into the cello's body.
The bow came down slowly across the strings. The first notes of Elgar's cello concerto filled the small dark room.
The ache in his groin was building and as he swayed, eyes closed, he could feel himself hardening again. His breathing deepened. The sweat poured from his brow. He swayed, pulling the bow, thrusting.
He was lost in the music and the burn of anticipation. Then, suddenly, there it was. What he had been waiting for. One note. A vibration that began in his fingertips and raced down through his body to his groin. As the wolf note sounded, the release came. He cried out as his body convulsed.
The bow dropped from his hand to the floor. He sat there, head down, gasping, holding the cello in his embrace.
I couldn't take my eyes off her.
Maybe it was because I hadn't seen her in two years, and in that time she had passed through the looking glass that separates girls from women. Whatever it was, Mandy was beautiful, and I couldn't stop staring.
She was dancing with some dickhead in a Dolphins jersey. Not just a fan jersey, but one of those "authentic" NFL versions that lets the wearer pretend he's a stud running back. He had even paid to have his name put on the backDARIUS. That the guy actually looked like a football player pissed me off. That he had ten fewer years than me and twenty more pounds of hard muscle, made me stay in my chair.
That, and the knowledge that Mandy would have killed me if I butted in.
I sat there, sipping my Dewar's and crunching the ice, my eyes never leaving her and the faux pro. She had been dancing with him for the last half hour. Finally, she stood on her tiptoes, gave the guy a kiss on the cheek and snaked her way through the crowd of dancers and back to the table.
"Was that necessary?" I asked as she slid into the chair.
"What?" Her face was glistening with sweat and her eyes were shining.
"The kiss thing."
She laughed but even in the dim bar light I could see the blush creep into her cheeks. "He was nice," she said. She took a sip of her wine spritzer. "He's a Miami Dolphin."
"Oh, yeah? What position?"
"He told you that?"
She nodded, her eyes searching the crowd for him again. She spotted him sitting at a table and waved. He waved back.
"Mandy, he's not a Dolphin," I said.
She looked at me. "How do you know?"
"First, I know the whole roster and there's no running back named Darius. Second, no player would be caught dead in a jersey off the field. They all wear Coogi sweaters."
She stared at me for a moment. "Why do you always do this?"
I looked away, on the pretense of trying to signal the waitress. The music was loud and throbbing, some kind of rap thing that I didn't get and never would. It felt like someone was taking a jackhammer to my head.
Suddenly I felt her hand cover mine and I looked back at her.
"Bear, it's my last night here. Let's just have some fun tonight, okay?" she said.
Maybe it was the way she said it. Or the fact that I hadn't heard her use my nickname in such a long time. Maybe it was the fact that seeing her dancing with that young handsome guy made me feel every year of the twelve years between us. Maybe it was the fact that I had never quite accepted the fact that my little sister wasn't little anymore.
I managed a smile. "I'm sorry."
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I caught a whiff of Shalimar. I had sent her the perfume for her birthday last month, just like I had given her a bottle every birthday since she was sixteen. Shalimar and Juicy Fruit gum. That was my little sister's scent. Except tonight there was a new under note there a muskier more womanly scent that mixed with the wine spritzer.
Her eyes were searching the crowd and she was bobbing her head to the music. The Dewars was gone so I crunched more ice. I studied her face, lit by the pink glow of the bar's neon. Her long straight blond hair was alive in the breeze, her nose was sun-burnt, her blue eyes dancing.
The music stopped for a second. "So," I said. "Tell me at least that you're having a good time."
She grinned. "The best. Thanks for talking Daddy into letting me come."
I gave a half-smile and waved to the waitress, holding up my empty glass. The music started up again.
"You won't tell Daddy, will you?" Mandy yelled over the din.
"Tell him what?"
"That I danced with a black guy."
I stared at her. "That guy was black?"
It took her a couple seconds to realize I was kidding. But then she laughed so hard she knocked over her wine glass.
"No more for you," I said.
"Aw come on, Bear."
"Nope. You're cut off. I can't stand a woman who can't hold her liquor."
The waitress brought my fresh Dewar's and mopped up the spilled wine. Mandy had gone back to watching the dancers again, bobbing and swaying to the music like it was the soundtrack of her life. Which it was, of course. I suddenly felt so much older than thirty-three. And I was just as suddenly fifteen, thrust back to my room back in Raleigh, Nirvana pulsating on the CD player, Dad pounding on my locked door. I looked back at Mandy, wondering what her life was like back in that house now. I had escaped, fleeing the hothouse of North Carolina for the fresh air of Miami. But she had never been further away from home than Atlanta.
That was why I had finally broken down and called home last month. That was why I had asked my parents if Mandy could come and visit me. A birthday gift, I had called it. But what I hoped it would be was an emancipation. I wanted her to know there was a wide, wonderful, awful world beyond the small one she knew.
My cell chirped. I pulled it out and looked at the number. I grimaced and set it down on the table.
"Girlfriend?" Mandy asked with a smile.
"My editor," I said.
"Do you even have a girlfriend?" Her smile was playful.
"You're such a liar, Bear."
"So, how was graduation?" I asked, to change the subject.
She shrugged. "Depressing."
"No one can find a job," she said. "Not one of my friends has a bite."
Mandy had majored in business. I took a sip of scotch, thinking about how it had been when I had left Duke. I had abandoned my plan to go to med school and spent a year bumming around the Far East. When I finally came home, I landed a sports job at a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale. I had felt like my life was just beginning. Mandy sounded like hers was stillborn.
"I'm thinking of going back and getting a teaching degree," Mandy said. "Elementary school."
"The pay is shit," I said.
Her smile turned rueful. "That's what Daddy said."
"What does Mom say?"
"She thinks I should get a job at Saks and wait until things get better. Or stay in school and go for my MBA."
I shook my head slowly. "And live at home, right?"
She was quiet for a moment, toying with the stem of her wine glass. "I'm not like you, Bear," she said softly.
"What do you mean?"
"I like being home. And I can't just go off to some place I don't know. I'm not brave like you."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. But I regretted it when I saw her hurt look. "Brave is not a word anyone would apply to me," I said.
We fell into a silence. Mandy filled the void by looking around the bar. I filled it by taking two long draws on the Dewar's. I put the glass down to see Mandy staring at me.
"That's your third," she said.
"You know I can't drive a stick, Bear."
It was an innocent enough remark, referring as it was to my vintage Corvette. But it was also an admonition that I didn't need another drink. I would have been irritated I had heard about my drinking from friends but there was a touch of sadness in her face. And I knew she was remembering the same thing I was remembering. That hot June night when she was nine and I showed up at her friend Trudy's house to drive her home. I had been partying hard at the Kappa Alpha house after graduation. She knew I was drunk, but trusted me anyway. I drove the Opel into a tree on the way home. I broke my collarbone, arm and three ribs, and spent a year in traction. Mandy was luckier. She hit the windshield and ended up with a scar over her left eye.
I couldn't see the scar in the bar light. The plastic surgeon was one of the best, a colleague of Dad's at Duke Raleigh Hospital. Mandy never brought the accident up, never reminded me of it once. My parents...well, that was something else entirely.
"Come on, let's get going," I said, rising.
"But it's early!" she said.
"It's going on two. And your flight is at ten-thirty."
"Okay, but I need some more pictures first."
She grabbed her big gold purse off the barstool and I waited patiently while she rummaged through its dark depths. She finally pulled out her phone, a sleek Day-Glo pink thing that made my cell look like something from the last century.
She jumped off the stool and came over to my side, pressing her cheek against mine and holding out her phone arms-length.
"Cheese!" she said.
She snapped off several more then tossed her phone into the purse. "Give me yours now," she yelled over the music.
"Your phone. I'll take some for you."
"Just send me the one you took."
"Do you know even know how to download pictures?"
She shook her head, took my phone and snapped off a couple quick shots of our heads together.
She handed me the cell and kissed my forehead. "Now you have me with you forever," she said.
I stared at the photo of us on my cell. "You cut off the top of my head," I said.
Mandy laughed. I downed another quick swig of scotch and rose. Mandy slipped her purse over her shoulder. "I have to hit the john."
I watched her disappear into the crowd and leaned back in the chair, glad to have the extra moments to finish my drink. It was a typical October Miami nighthot, sticky, but with a brisk wind, thanks to the tropical storm that was hovering over the Nassau. The hurricane-watch party at the big pool bar at the Clevelander was just starting to kick into second gear. This wasn't my scene, but I had brought Mandy here because she had wanted to dance and I knew she would get a kick out it.
I smiled as I remembered her face as she watched the South Beach crowd. The glossy brown-skinned navel-pierced girl in the leopard bra and thong. The emaciated guy with an albino boa constrictor wrapped around his tattooed chest. The white-haired man in the perfect seersucker suit gallantly shepherd his purple-wigged wife into a Bentley. I had watched Mandy watching the circus parade, watched her devouring it all, and my heart ached. I wanted everything in the world for her.
I signaled the waitress and paid the bill in cash so we could make a quick getaway. I glanced at my watch and looked toward the restroom doors by the bar. I spotted Mandy but she was back on the dance floor, back gyrating with Darius again. She saw me and waved. I gestured to my watch. She held up a finger and mouthed the words, "one more dance, Bear."
I shook my head, smiled and took another drink of scotch. I looked out toward the ocean and watched the lightning zigzag silently over the black sky.
When I looked back, Mandy was gone. So was the Dolphin guy. The band had ended its set and the sudden quiet quickly filled with laughter then the softer pulse of recorded music.
I scanned the crowd, crunching more ice, waiting for her to emerge. I watched the door beyond the bar, but she wasn't in the constant parade of women coming and going. Finally, I got up and went to the restroom. I stood there for a moment, feeling stupid. Finally, I asked a woman going in to check and see if there was a blond girl in a turquoise blouse inside.
The woman took forever to return. "Your date's not in there," she said.
"Thanks," I muttered.
I pushed my way back to dance floor. I wove slowly through the sweating crowd, looking for a swatch of blue. I was looking for that white Dolphin jersey too. No sign of either Mandy or that Darius guy.
A hard pit was forming in my gut.
I went back to the table. It had already been taken over by two couples. I swung back to the dance floor, scrutinizing every face, even as my gut was telling me that she wasn't there. I tried to remember exactly where Darius had been sitting with his friends, but none of the faces registered in my memory.
"Damn it, Mandy," I whispered.
The colors and sounds swirled around me as I tried to think. Maybe she was looking for me now and was outside waiting?
I hurried out to the street. I looked up and down the river of people flowing on the sidewalk, searching for her blonde hair. Nothing.
I did a quick tour of the nearby shops and bars, thinking she had wandered off to find another souvenir. But I didn't spot her. I looked across the slow-moving cars on Ocean Drive toward the beach, then jogged across. There were plenty of people on the beach, kids mostly. But no Mandy. I hurried back to the street.
The cell was still in my hand and I punched in her number. My eyes scoured the crowd as I listened to the rings. It went to voice mail.
"Mandy," I barked. "Where the hell are you? I'm outside the Clevelander." I hung up.
A car crawled by, blaring out rap. Music spilled from a nearby dance club. A woman shrieked with laughter. I checked my cell to make sure it wasn't on mute. I stared at it, willing it to ring.
I hit redial. Again, it went right to voice mail.
The cold nub that had formed in my gut was growing. I was never one to trust vague feelings. I was a reporter and trained to believe only what I could see, what I could prove.
But the feeling rising up and putting a chokehold on my heart now was real.
Mandy was gone.
© P.J. Parrish