He checks his e-mail, hurrying through it, deleting the garbage, the junk mail, answering one message that needs to be answered, keeping the rest for later. Pulls down the Favorite Places menu, selects Newsgroups: ACSK.

And his newsgroup comes on-screen, alt.crime.serialkillers. He scrolls down the list of new messages. There are four in the Jason Bierman thread, and he reads them, and there's nothing very interesting. He's seen this happen time and time again in a thread. After a few days the whole point of the topic gets lost, as people post responses to someone else's off-topic meandering, and as others, the Johnny One-Note element, ride their individual hobby horses- for/against capital punishment, say, or warning of government intrusion and the New World Order. There is a way to screen out messages from the most obnoxious members, you add their names to your killfile and their messages never appear on your screen, but he hasn't done that yet. Soon, perhaps.

There's nothing about Lia Parkman.

Well, how could there be? If all has gone well, they think the little darling had too much to drink and forgot you needed gills to breathe underwater. That may not hold up, it depends how good the medical examiner is and what kind of a day he's having. If they're good, if they look closely, they may well guess that she had help.

Eyes staring up through the water…

But even if they work it out, he realizes, they won't know who did it. That's fine, that's the way he wants it, and yet, well, there is a slight downside.

Bierman's not getting credit.

Bierman's going to drop off the edge of the newsgroup's consciousness. He doesn't really belong there, he's barely a mass murderer and by no means a serial killer. He has three victims, all killed the same day, one miles apart from the others, to be sure, but all slain as part of a single extended episode.

So it's quite proper that he fade and be forgotten.

But there's a real serial killer involved, and nobody even knows. Nobody has a clue!

Call him- well, just for now, call him Arden Brill. It was an error, borrowing a name from that musty old Freudian, but let it go. Unless the investigating officer has a side interest in discredited psychoanalytic claptrap, the name will set off no alarms. So why not use it, if only in the privacy of one's own mind?

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Arden Brill has killed not three people but five. He killed twice on West Seventy-fourth Street, twice on Coney Island Avenue (at intervals several hours apart, making them, really, two separate incidents), and now he can claim a fifth victim, on Claremont Avenue.

And no one knows!

He scans the computer screen. At the bottom of the newsgroup window is a button that reads New Message. He clicks on it, and there's a new screen, all set up to receive a message for alt.crime.serialkillers.

On the subject line he types: BIERMAN INNOCENT VICTIM.

No, only the worst idiots use all caps like that. It's the newsgroup equivalent of shouting. He deletes it, tries again: Bierman innocent victim.

Better.

He looks at the screen, then begins to type:

Jason Bierman never killed anybody. He was artfully set up to take the rap for a killer none of you know anything about. That man's name is Arden Brill.

He deletes the last sentence and goes on:

… I am that man, and you may call me Arden Brill. I have killed five times. Bierman was my first victim, the Hollanders numbers two and three. Carl Ivanko was fourth. You have credited Jason Bierman with all of these killings, and he never even met or heard of a single one of his purported victims!

My fifth victim is Lia Parkman, and you have never heard of her, but you will. I drowned her in a tub of water, held her by her tits and watched her fight for life.

But she hadn't struggled. In fact he was not altogether sure she ever regained consciousness. Her eyes were open, but did that necessarily mean she knew what was going on? Maybe he should change that last sentence:

… I drowned her in a tub of water, held her by her sweet little tits and watched the bubbles rise to the surface as the life went out of her.

That was better. That, in fact, was exactly how it had happened. Calling her tits sweet and little was not exactly clinical, but no one could fault him for veracity.

… I do not kill for the thrill of it. I have a motive, and it is perfectly logical. I shall profit enormously from my crimes.

No, not crimes. He deleted "crimes," resumed:

… profit enormously from my actions, which may disqualify me as a serial killer. Still, for all that my work is undertaken for profit. I cannot deny that the act of killing is satisfying to me in ways I would never have anticipated. I enjoy it before the act, during the act, and after the act has been completed.

He pauses, forming his thoughts:

I have killed both men and women. Killing men, I would say, provides me with more of a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, for sheer pleasure, there's nothing like killing a woman.

No, amend that slightly:

… nothing like killing an attractive woman.

He sits there, looking at what he has written, nodding his approval. His watch beeps, signaling that it is ten minutes before the hour.

He moves the mouse, poises the cursor over the Post button.

Oh, no. No, I don't think so.

He shifts the mouse, clicks on Cancel. The message, unsent, vanishes from the screen. A few more clicks and he's off-line, and his screensaver is back in place, lights winking on and off, on and off…

TWENTY-NINE

"Let's go over it again," Wentworth said. "Doc's name is Nadler?"

"Seymour Nadler."

"And he's a psychiatrist, is that right?"

"Board-certified," I said.

"A disciple of Sigmund Freud."

"That I wouldn't know."

"And maybe of Brill," he said. "A. A. Brill. Studied with him, maybe."

"The dates are wrong," I said. "Brill died in 1948."

"Was Nadler even born then?"

"No," I said. "He's around forty."

"And the gun was his, the murder weapon."

"Yes."

"Registered, and he had a permit for it."

"For his office and residence. He didn't have a carry permit."

"He bought it when, sometime last year? Did he give a reason?"

"According to him," I said, "he had a patient he was worried about."

"Makes sense," Wentworth said. "I got a patient worries me, I want a gun so I can shoot him. Why dick around with medication? I don't suppose he ever had occasion to shoot this patient."

"He said the man committed suicide."

"Shot himself?"

"Went out a window, or maybe it was off a roof."

"Story check out?"

"About the patient? I have no idea. He didn't furnish the name, and I didn't see any reason to ask it."

"You didn't suspect him."

"No, not at all. Of what, killing three people with a registered weapon and leaving it at the scene? The man had diplomas on the wall, I figured he had an IQ at least as high as his body temperature."

He started to say something, then stopped. At the corner, a vendor of soft ice cream had parked his truck, and the Mister Softee music was playing relentlessly. Wentworth said, "Excuse me," and got to his feet, striding off toward the ice cream truck.

"Man hears that music," T J said, "he just got to have it. What it is, he was conditioned as a child." He glanced across the street, raised his eyes about ten floors. "You got any trouble with the concept, Dr. Nadler be glad to explain it all for you."

We were on a bench on the east side of Central Park West, directly across the street from Seymour Nadler's building. There was a five-foot stone wall behind us, and on the other side of it was the park. I'd left word for Wentworth at the precinct, and he'd called me right after he left Kristin's house. He'd interviewed her at length, and had reinforced the advice I'd given her- don't take any calls, don't open the door for anyone. He hadn't been able to arrange police protection yet, but he had a request in, and expected it would be approved before long.

I looked over and saw Wentworth in conversation with the Mister Softee man. After a few moments the truck pulled away from the curb, crossed the intersection, and kept going for another block. Wentworth returned empty-handed, but with a look of triumph on his square-jawed face.

"Told him to take it down the road," he said. "What's the point of having a gold shield if you can't kick Mister Softee's ass off your block?"

"Who I wanted to be," T J said. "When I grew up."

"Who, Mister Softee? Or a guy with a gold shield?"

"Mister Softee. You like the Pied Piper, ring that little bell an' all the boys an' girls come runnin'."

"You'd like that, would you?"

"Thought so, when I was young. Everywhere you go, they be happy to see you."

"Not their parents," Wentworth said. "Not anybody who's trying to concentrate. Imagine sitting in the truck all day, listening to that music for hours on end." He shook his head. "Guy didn't want to move. 'But this is my spot,' he kept whining. Like nobody'll be able to find him a block away. 'This is my spot,' I said. He got the point."

"It's a small victory," I said, "but at least it goes in the win column."

"Damn right," he said. "Look at me, I put the fear of God into Mister Softee. You figure that's his wife's pet name for his thing? Jesus, let's hope not."

On the sidewalk in front of us, a girl in her early teens whizzed by on Rollerblades. "They're not supposed to skate on the sidewalk," he said, "but I'll let her go this time. I already filled my quota with Mister Softee. You want to get back to your boy Nadler?"

"Sure."

"He bought the gun last year, kept it locked away in his desk drawer. March, he and his wife are out, he comes home and there's been a burglary. He makes a report, files a claim with his insurance company. Right so far?"

I nodded.

"Then two, three days later he opens the drawer and the gun's gone. Did he say what made him look?"

"Not that I remember."

"It's not a stretch. He's at his desk, he's thinking about the burglary, thinks, Jesus, suppose I was here, what would I do, would I go for my gun? So he looks for the gun and it's missing. And he reported it, right?"

"Right."

"But didn't add it to his insurance claim."

"He didn't want the aggravation of amending the claim," I said. "And he wasn't sure it would be covered, as he'd never included it on the schedule. It didn't seem unreasonable."

"No, and it still doesn't. Plus there's the embarrassment factor. 'I bought a gun to protect myself and my family and the burglars took it away with them.' The law requires him to inform the police, but nobody says he has to put in a claim. That's up to him."

"Right."

"So we fast-forward a few months," he said, "and it's the end of July, beginning of August, and the Hollanders are killed, and the two in Brooklyn."

"Bierman and Ivanko."

"And the gun's left at the scene, as it more or less has to be if it's going to look like suicide, and a ballistics check reveals the gun is the very same twenty-two-caliber pistol stolen from the good Dr. Nadler. Was it a twenty-two? Did I get that part right?"