Once upon a time, telephones were dumb objects tethered in place by a vast network of copper wires. When the first cell phones were foisted on the world, they were almost a joke: brick-heavy, nerdily antennaed, and such gobblers of energy that batteries were exhausted in twenty minutes. Despite all that, they soon morphed into status-symbols. And bait.
Friday May 21, 6:49 p.m.
Nick Clayborne sat brooding in his station wagon as the radio scanner clipped to his dashboard sampled the airwaves. The bright amber numbers spun and settled. As the iron sky turned to rust, tinny telephone voices crackled from the speaker.
“--damn it, that’s one thing you’re not getting. You already got the house. Plus all that support money you and your lawyer screwed me out of--”
“My lawyer says I’m entitled--”
“Listen, you tell that greasy, money-grubbing bastard --” the language degenerated into a string of curses.
Nick wrote in a notebook, his handwriting small and neat, his notes organized by date and topic. May 1993; domestic; divorce; argument.
“I want that car. I’ll get a court order.”
“The Corvette is mine. --The hours I put into it!”
“You spent more time with that car than you did with me--”
“--rebuilt that engine with my own two hands! So forget it, you’re not getting it. --God, Brenda, you always said you hated it! I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
In the passenger seat, Nick’s dog Lulu slept fitfully, her ears twitching at the angry voices.
“Vindictive lousy bitch-- I swear I’ll smash it up before I let you have it.”
“Go and smash it. Total it out. That would suit me fine.”
As Nick finished his notes, the connection ended and his scanner sought another. It found a woman ordering Chinese takeout on her way home: a sad little meal for one. He hit Seek, seeking meatier fare. The numbers spun and settled, spun and settled.
A salesman and buyer negotiated. Not over prices, but the size of their kickback, and how to avoid reporting the income. Nick listened, took more notes, dispassionately examining their naked greed. Good for the notebook, but not really the kind of fare he needed. His need was particularly strong tonight.
He glanced out the side window. His car sat on a dirt road a few hundred feet off Crestview. From the ridge, the land dropped away revealing a series of neighborhoods running to the edge of San Francisco Bay. But Nick wasn’t here for the view. From nine hundred feet above sea level, he could tap into conversations all along the peninsula and across the Bay. It wasn’t exactly legal, but it was a harmless diversion. A meager crumb of amusement. Some warmth for the ice in his veins.
A few stars appeared over the lights of the homes below. Lulu shifted her twelve-year-old bones into a more comfortable position, her black and white markings stark in the dimming light. The scanner spun and settled, spun and settled.
A man called his girlfriend. “Jackie? Hey guess what? My wife’s gonna be traveling on business for a week.” Nick took notes.
A woman complained about her job. “The boss comes on to me like I’m going to suck his weenie for him for his lousy twenty five buck raise.” Nick took notes.
A store manager complained about a theft. “The bitch swiped it right out of the freezer, just stuck it under her sweater and walked out the door. A fuckin’ fourteen pound turkey!” Nick took notes.
And then a woman’s voice reached out to him. The word “lumpectomy” hung in the air. Nick put his pen down and listened.
“Have you told Don?”
“I can’t. I can’t. He’s never been able to deal with--”
“Honey, you have to tell him.”
“What if the doctor decides a lumpectomy isn’t enough?”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine, Andrea. Statistics--”
“What if I have to have a radical? He’d walk, I know he’d walk. --Things haven’t been all that great between us lately.”
“He wouldn’t leave you. Not like this.”
“Don can be a bastard sometimes. The things he says to me. You don’t know.”
“I don’t want to hear this--”
“--And then where would I be? Disfigured-- alone-- scared I might die-- Oh God, Karen. --Jesus, how could I-- how could I even support myself?”
“Andrea, for God’s sake--”
Faintly through the silence, Nick could hear what must have been crying. The scanner moved mercifully on.
A salesman driving home checked his messages.
A woman told her girlfriend about her collagen injections.
A man bragged to a friend about his new Beamer.
As the evening wore on, Nick found a pair of familiar voices. Carrie and Jim. They’d become regular users of their new cell phones. Jim complained about his day, and Carrie commiserated. They made dinner plans as they drove from opposite directions, heading home.
In the endless hours Nick Clayborne spent at his scanner, he’d come to know many voices. Kelly, breathlessly describing every date to her friend Amy. Sheila and her overweight husband Al. Sexy and long-suffering Amanda, dominated by Scott. Jilly, the San Francisco call-girl whose sexual adventures had ended in a sordid murder. Kimberly and her traveling salesman husband Jamie, who sent her flowers every time he cheated on her. And his personal favorite, Samantha and her clinging-vine boyfriend Tom. His notebooks were filled with them: his vicarious society, his people. He took a proprietary interest in them all. Life in full. Death, too. Besides Jilly, there was a Menlo Park schoolteacher named Zoey. Another murder victim. Though it was irrational, Nick couldn’t help feeling that his ghost-presence had brought evil down on the poor women.
His listening was balm to his wounded spirit. But his note-taking was for another purpose. Two years earlier, as the cell phone phenomenon was just taking off, he’d written a sardonic article describing the illicit, inane or explicitly sexual things people talked about on their new toys. Most of them were unaware that their conversations could be heard by anyone with a radio wave scanner. The few who did know might have been titillated by the chance that someone was listening in. Nick’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, triggered some amusing comments in the following issue, and now he had a book contract for more of the same.
One thing he would never do, though, was reveal the deeply personal things he came across, such as the breast cancer discussion he’d just heard between poor Andrea and Karen. Those he hoarded for himself.
Nick Clayborne stretched his aching back. The pain was worse than usual tonight. He started his engine. It was time to head home.
A sudden scream of police sirens shattered the silence. In the distance, a white San Carlos squad car soared over the top of Crestview, its electronic wailing an assault on the ears. A second car followed almost immediately. Nick punched in the police band. His scanner locked onto the local frequency.
Frenzied voices tumbled out of the speaker as squad cars converged on the scene.
“Green responding. Heading up Club.”
“Unit Four, 10-23.”
“Give me a 10-41.”
“10-4.” The dispatcher fielded the calls with cool efficiency, her words crisp and quick. Nick sorted through the code numbers. One unit ordered to stand by; the dispatcher asking if an ambulance is needed; another unit announcing his arrival. One code stood out from the rest: 10-54: Possible Homicide. In the near distance, the sirens ended their mournful wail. Minutes of aching silence. Then the scanner squawked. A supervisor announced his arrival on the scene.
Through an open police microphone, the faint sounds of a man crying. To Nick it seemed to last an eternity.
Then a more authoritative voice. “Boyfriend entered and found the woman on the floor. When he saw blood, he freaked and ran out. He left his keys locked inside.”
An officer spoke. “Okay, we’ll take the door.”
Nick Clayborne stared into the fog and congealing darkness. The silence stretched. A crackle of static and the sergeant’s voice. “Sam One--” More silence.
“Sam One, go ahead.”
“Sam One we have a DB and a crime scene here.”
DB. Dead Body.
The cop’s microphone was keyed on. Heavy breathing. “--We need Investigations right away.”
“Ten-Four, Sam One. Any need for backup?” The dispatcher sounded younger now, no longer so cool and detached.
“We could use two more units for crowd control. The place is starting to crawl with neighbors and they’re gonna chew up the --ah, Jesus!”
Through the open microphone, another patrolman, his voice hoarse with strain: “Christ, he cut out her tongue!” Nick felt his gorge rise.
Another voice. “--seen so much blood!”
“Hey, 10-12 on that, all right?”
10-12. Others May Be Listening. A quick rictus of a grin creased Nick’s somber features: they got that right.
More static, then the sergeant came back on. “I’m going to the car phone.” The transmission ended.
A nasty grinding sound as Nick tried to start his already-running engine. He backed up the dirt road onto Crestview but instead of turning left and heading home, he was drawn the other way, toward the scene of the crime. An impulse he found impossible to resist.
He slowed as he reached the location.
Fog curdled around the townhome complex, lit blood-red by the flashing lights of four police cars on the scene. Two of the cars occupied the entrance to the parking lot, the others angled up on the lawn, sitting in the ugly crescents they’d carved coming to a stop. What was left of the lawn was churned to mush by the neighbors, drawn by morbid curiosity.
Nick Clayborne sat across the street in his car watching the eager throng. Two more patrol cars arrived. Lulu stirred, her panting breath fogging the windshield. She seemed eager to join all the activity. Nick hesitated, unwilling to become part of this frenzied society. At last he snapped a leash onto her, took up his cane and crossed the street.
Standing apart, he watched as new arrivals swelled the crowd to several dozen. Couples from the surrounding blocks, teens, kids, dogs. They hovered at the crime scene, asking questions, spreading rumors. Was it murder? Impossible. Things like that didn’t happen in peaceful little suburbs like San Carlos.
Nick Clayborne leaned on his cane, the dispassionate observer. Though he had the bent and painful posture of an old man, he was not yet thirty five. Lulu sat alertly at his side. Two small girls approached. The younger looked around four, the same age as Nick’s daughter. Lulu seemed glad of the company.
The older girl eyed the dog cautiously. “Does she bite?”
“Lulu wouldn’t hurt a fly,” said Nick.
The girls squatted before her. The dog waved her tail, eagerly accepting their caresses. Their mother saw her girls with a stranger and squawked in indignant alarm. They ran back to her side. She bent and hugged them to her, glared briefly at Nick, then took her children firmly by the hands and headed homeward.
Nick envied them their innocence.
He noticed a young man, perhaps the boyfriend, quietly weeping. A police detective guided him around a corner, away from prying eyes.
He watched the crowd feeding eagerly on the rumors. He was no better. He found the spectacle irresistible. He moved toward the entry.
Nick’s view was blocked by a youngish man, pony-tailed, his flabby, tattooed shoulders revealed by an orange tank top.
Companionably making room, Ponytail said, “I haven’t seen this many cops since the last Dead concert. Man, what a mess.”
Why does tragedy make people so fucking affable, wondered Nick. He moved around the edges of the crowd. The dog clung to his side, possibly spooked by the sights, the sounds, the smells. At the entrance to the condo, half a dozen uniformed officers waited. One looked familiar, but Nick couldn’t place him.
An older couple gazed raptly at the scene. The old man turned to him and solemnly filled him in. “I heard an officer say something about a body.”
“Ed--” warned his wife; then she whispered fiercely at him, “The property values.”
“It’s going to be in the papers, Harriet.”
She turned away disapprovingly.
Property values, Nick silently snorted.
“I think it was a woman,” Ponytail informed them.
“Okay folks, let’s clear a path here.” A plainclothes officer pushed in from behind: tall and big-boned, his graying hair standing in disarray, a habitual sneer on his lips, his dark eyes imbedded in drooping cynical flesh. His tan sports jacket swung open, revealing an efficient-looking snub-nosed handgun in a shoulder holster. “Sanchez, get these people out of here.”
Officer Sanchez, beefy and self-assured, moved to comply.
“Detective Shaw, could we have a statement?” The media had arrived, too. A young woman thrust out a mike; behind her, a stocky cameraman aimed a Betacam from his shoulder. Another TV reporter pushed his way closer, followed by two more women clutching mini-recorders. The crowd stirred with excitement. Shaw looked them over coldly. “Okay. We have a homicide. That’s all I’ll tell you. Anything else you report will be your own rumors and speculation.”
The reporters barraged him with questions.
“Is it true the victim was a young woman?”
“Was she raped?”
“Did it look like a robbery?”
“Was there a struggle?”
“Do you have a suspect? Will you be making an arrest? Is this related to other--”
Shaw turned his back and spoke to an officer. “Keep them out of my way. Get this crowd out of here, too.” He stalked back to the entrance and ducked under the yellow tape.
Shaw handled himself surprisingly well for a cop in sleepy little San Carlos, Nick thought. He must have come from some big city somewhere.
The camera crews panned the scene, taking in police activity, the nervous crowd. Reporters sought out people to interview. Nick caught glimpses through the open door: uniformed cops inside, apparently just standing around. Then a plainclothes investigator moved purposefully down the hall. Rubber-gloved forensic technicians dusted for prints, ran a tape measure, took notes, wrapped evidence in butcher paper. Nick leaned on his cane, caught up in the spectacle. Sometimes one of the officers spoke into his intercom.
Nick longed to return to his car and listen to all this through his scanner. Soften this grim reality into a radio drama.
The path to the rear of the complex was blocked off with yellow tape. In the hazy distance he saw officers with flashlights, examining the grounds in search of evidence.
He led Lulu around to the far side of the tennis courts. It was quiet here among the warren of buildings, the flickering blue lights of televisions in the oblivious family rooms, people in comfortable togetherness, laughing at sit-coms or staring grim-faced at “reality” shows while reality itself, that rough beast, slouched past their windows unseen, unsought.
Nick Clayborne knew at first hand the horror and the grief, the refusal to believe and then, months or years later, after the pain mutes into the background bruise of life in the absence, the final grudging acceptance. The death of this woman would leave behind a similar kind of horror in those who loved her. In this case, however, her death was at the hands of a killer; an act of madness that hadn’t even the randomness of accident or the neutrality of disease to excuse it. He could imagine their sense of outrage, fear, anger and hatred. The search for a target for those feelings. In his own case, there was nobody to blame except the innocent combination of circumstances, and God, and himself--always himself. He shuddered. His guilt felt like a physical object within him: a black shadow that would show up on X-rays. After all these years, he still longed for remission. Redemption was beyond hope.
He headed back toward the street. Lulu sniffed at a neon-green tennis ball that had escaped from the court. A few neighbors hung around, along with the media folk. Two white news vans were parked nearby, their rooftop satellite dishes extended on telescoping stalks. Technicians moved silently around them, faintly visible through the fog.
Nick crossed to his car. He started his engine and turned on the wipers to clear the cold sweat off his windshield.
Jessie was staying with Nick’s mother for the weekend. It was too late to phone and say goodnight. He labored up the stairs to her room, picked up her clothes and made her bed. He found three of her dolls naked and in pieces. She liked to pull the heads off them. He smiled at her quirk, reassembled the dolls and placed them on her pillow.
He went back down to the kitchen, looking for things to occupy his hands, his thoughts.
At last he turned on the TV.
It was the lead story on the Late News.
He gazed at the image of the condominium complex as the voice of the newscaster described the events.
With a little shock, Nick caught a glimpse of himself in the background, looking like just another of the murder ghouls gathered at the scene of the crime.
A sudden closeup of the anguished face of the young man he’d seen weeping earlier.
“How well did you know Ms. Kinney?” asked a reporter.
“Marcie and--” He swallowed several times, then began again. “Marcie and I were dating over two years. We were planning to get married.” He blinked back tears.
Other reporters closed in for their own sound bites, rudely shouting over each other. “Mr. Connors, what was your reaction when you first saw--” “Phil, have you spoken to Marcie’s parents?” “Are the police holding you as a suspect?”
Detective Shaw responded. “Mr. Connors is not being held at this time.”
“Do you have any leads?”
Nick frowned. Phil and Marcie: the names had a familiar ring. Hadn’t his scanner come across a couple with those names? Talking, teasing, joking. Could it be the same couple? He hoped not. Christ. He stared without seeing as the newscaster returned. “Police deny any connection to two earlier Bay Area murders.”
He clicked the TV off. Sat back.
Jilly Johnston, the San Francisco call-girl. Zoey, from Menlo Park. Now Marcie from San Carlos. Three young Bay Area women, all slain within the year. Were they connected? There seemed to be no particular reason to think they were.
Then why had his scanner locked onto the cellphone signals of all three women?