He hated the way fear robbed them of any semblance of life and light in those last moments. Ghastly gray dusted their cheeks and blew out their eyes like a candle. No matter how perfectly he arranged and refined them, they were nothing more than dolls. Their faces a parody, their eyes glassy and cold. Try as he might, no amount of paint or powder could give them back what they had lost. They were broken.
The uniforms created a perimeter around the building—a thin blue line holding back the ravenous horde of reporters and onlookers.
Katniss Everdeen drew a deep breath as she was waved through the barricade after flashing her credentials. This was the third one in as many months. She parked her car and dried her hands on her pants before climbing out. Her partner was already on scene. Flipping open the notebook where she had hurriedly jotted a few details upon receiving the call, she reviewed them so they would be fresh in her mind. The victim was a female in her late teens. Her boss had discovered her upon coming in to close the restaurant down for the night. The woman was hysterical when she called 911. She had already provided an ID. The girl's name was Rue.
She was halfway across the parking lot before a voice brought her up short. Turning swiftly, she caught a glimpse of one of the SID guys waving to her. She raised an acknowledging hand and quickened her step. As she drew closer, Finnick Odair pushed a gloved hand through rumpled copper waves then stated, "We're ready to get started as soon as you're done. Don't expect to find much of anything if the other two are anything to go by. This guy doesn't make mistakes."
Katniss gave him a sympathetic look, silently agreeing with his assessment. SID had gone over the two previous locations with a fine tooth comb and come up empty. No hair, no prints, no fibers. Nothing. The only bit of evidence they had so far was a partial imprint from a muddy boot found just inside the door where the first victim was discovered. Glimmer Downs, her mind stubbornly insisted, not victim. She forced herself to use their names, refusing to give in to the urge to tar them with a meaningless label. To take their names was to forget that they were human. To sweep aside the fact that they had lives and families and dreams before crossing paths with the faceless stranger Katniss now sought.
"He can't keep it up forever," she said. "Eventually, he'll slip up and when that happens, we'll nail his ass to the wall. It will happen, Finn. Just be patient."
Finnick toyed with the edge of his glove, snapping it repeatedly against the thin skin of his wrist. "We're catching a lot of heat from upstairs on this one. People are scared. They're beginning to lose faith in our ability to keep them safe. Rumor has it that the Mayor himself called the chief to demand that something be done. They want this guy off the streets, sooner rather than later."
She worried her bottom lip as she turned that over in her mind. Cases such as this were bad enough without the high brass sticking their noses in. High jingo, she'd heard it called by one of the old guys. Cray, a forty year veteran, always said that when a case had high jingo, you worked it by the book and watched your six. Katniss didn't put much stock in Cray's stories but that was one piece of advice that she took to heart. She'd spent most of her life perfecting the art of watching her back.
That skill stood her in good stead at the academy where guys outnumbered the girls by five to one. Her class of fifty cadets included twelve females, an oddity in and of itself. By the end of the term, only Katniss and one other had made the cut. Johanna Mason was a hard-boiled survivor much like Katniss herself. The first thing Jo had done after receiving her badge was to get a tattoo commemorating the occasion. The Salvador Dali clock with six being the largest and most noticeable on the face was clearly a nod to Cray's bit of wisdom.
"I guess that means I'd better get busy then," she joked. "Don't want to do anything to upset the Mayor."
Finnick chuckled. "We can't have that. Get a move on, Everdeen. You're holding up an important investigation. Those of us that have to work for a living have to wait until you and Hawthorne make your rounds. I promised Annie I'd be there for dinner tonight. Don't make me out to be one of those guys that lies to his wife."
"Don't worry, Finn. We'll get you home before the oven timer goes off." Katniss pulled a pair of gloves out of her pocket and rolled them on. "Besides, she's going out with me and Jo this weekend. She won't have time to be mad at you. It's Johanna's last weekend of freedom so we have to give her a good send off."
"Whatever you do, don't corrupt my wife. I married a good girl, Everdeen, and I want to keep it that way. You and Johanna keep your heathen ways to yourself. Annie doesn't need your bad habits."
Katniss snorted as she shouldered by him. "You just keep telling yourself that, Finnick. Annie doesn't need my help to pick up bad habits. She just plays at being sweet and innocent because you have a thing for that. I know about the schoolgirl fantasy. Don't tempt me to make that knowledge public."
"Bite your tongue," he scolded. "The world ain't ready for that."
"Ready or not, here I come." She murmured as she ducked through the swinging door that led into the kitchen. "I'll give you a yell as soon as we're ready for you."
Finnick tossed her a crooked grin. "I'll be waiting. Watch six, Katniss."
"Always," she mouthed quietly. Giving him a nod, she let the door ease shut behind her.
An older woman sat at the work counter with her face buried in her hands. Muffled sobs leaked from between her tightly wound fingers. At the sound of the door, she sat up, daubing her eyes with a tattered napkin. Short snatches of breath and a voice more crumpled than the apron lying forgotten on her lap gave away her secret. She had been crying long and hard by the look of her. Katniss thumbed a card from her jacket pocket and proffered it. The woman took it and held it in trembling fingers; her eyes lost and hopeless.
"Sae, I'm very sorry for your loss. I know this has been difficult for you. My name is Katniss Everdeen. I'm a detective with the Panem Police Department. " She stuck her hands back in her pockets as she watched the woman carefully. The first conversation was inevitably the hardest. She didn't want to make the woman any more upset than she already was. She needed Sae to focus. The trick was to show respect for the woman's grief, but also to get a cogent account of what she had witnessed. The slightest slip up now could result in the perp getting a get out of jail card. It had to be done right. No mistakes. "Take your time. Gather your thoughts. When you're ready, please tell me what happened as clearly and concisely as you can."
Sae visibly swallowed, patted her eyes with the soaked napkin, and heaved a shaky sigh. "I got here about ten o'clock to close up. Everything looked just like it always did except Rue wasn't out front. I thought she was in the back, filling up the sugars or something. When I opened the door, I could see her lying on the floor. I called out to her but she didn't move." New tears leaked out and ran down her face as Sae fought for control. "She didn't move, didn't do anything. I got scared that maybe she'd fallen and got hurt so I ran over. When I saw her face, I screamed. I couldn't help it. She just looked so…" The woman's voice broke on a stifled sob as she covered her face with her hands once more.
Katniss reached for a roll of paper towels sitting nearby and unwound a few. She folded them neatly together and tucked them gently into the distraught woman's hand. "Take a few minutes to compose yourself. I need to speak with my partner but I'll be right back. You take all the time you need." She smiled at the woman's grateful look before turning and walking deeper into the kitchen. She could see the body lying in the open area between the sink and the massive freezers that lined the back wall of the kitchen. Gale Hawthorne's lanky figure was propped up against one of the brushed steel doors as he held a cell phone up to his ear listening intently. He flicked a glance in her direction, waved her forward, and then turned his attention back to his phone. Katniss stilled herself, closing her eyes and taking deep fortifying breaths before she allowed herself to look.
The small form was horrible in its stillness. She lay as if sleeping on the cold, gray tiles of the kitchen, her hair spread out in a halo around her. Katniss stopped in the door and let her eyes sweep the scene. She was struck by the tableau. Death, she had learned, had many faces and forms. There was seldom any rhyme or reason to it.
This one was different. She lay gracefully on her side, hands loosely twined together as if in prayer, her face tilted toward the ceiling. There were no visible signs of violence except for the utter lack of movement. What took her back, what stole her breath was the girl's face. Painted with an artist's precision. A meaningless smile beamed from beneath wide, vacant eyes. A picture perfect doll.
"The Dollmaker," Gale observed grimly from behind her. Katniss nodded silently, her eyes locked on the girl before her. "That makes three. Dammit, how are we going to catch this guy?"
Katniss shook her head, feeling Gale's frustration as if it were her own. "I don't know. I just don't know."
End Part 1
A/N Watch six means "watch your back"... the phrase as well as the Dollmaker and facepainting belongs to Michael Connelly. This story is influenced by Mr. Connelly's book "The Concrete Blonde".