Flipping on the windshield wipers to brush away the flurries, he began to drive down the mountain. It was too early to tell if he’d finally found his soulmate. Still, it had given him the usual thrill to see the confusion in her eyes when he said he had to leave and handed her the black velvet box.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, babe,” was all he ever said to any of them before going out the door. That was the hardest part of the game, pretending he didn’t want to watch. He never stopped hoping that when he returned the latest contestant would be wrapped in nothing but diamonds and a smile. That would be the correct answer to the riddle on the gift card: Would you rather wear a carat or be a carat?
It wasn’t his fault that they never got it. He left them the scrapbook with all the clues spelled out for them. He gave them plenty of peace and quiet to concentrate. There was no cell phone reception, no Wi-Fi. There was no landline. All the exterior doors were impossible to unlock. Every window was sealed shut. Even the heating vents were broken up with semicircles of steel so nobody, not even the most agile gymnast, could crawl out, not that a few of them hadn’t tried.
Fortunately, hidden cameras captured their frenzy, so all that energy didn’t go to waste. And as much as he wanted to find his one true love, it was fun to watch the losers. He’d play the videos over and over for the rest of the year until it was February again, time to hunt once more for the perfect girl.
Girls didn’t hitchhike the way they did when he was young, but there were far more runaways on the streets these days. Just about all of them were on drugs that made them as vulnerable as stray kittens. More and more of them were ending up on a mortuary slab with a Jane Doe tag tied around their big toes.
That was one reason why they couldn’t believe their luck when a mature, handsome gentleman with money and power offered them a dream weekend in the snowy countryside. How they gasped when they saw the stunning glass box at the top of the mountain, only an hour from the city but as remote as a house on the moon.
He laughed out loud as the thought came to him that the girls weren’t so much like kittens as bunnies, dumb bunnies. No, better yet, birds, birdbrains that sometimes flung themselves against the glass walls trying to escape. For instance, they never saw anything strange about the name he gave them. Joe Kerr, for God’s sake? Each one rode trustingly up the mountain in his hundred-thousand-dollar black SUV, gawking through the tinted windows like Cinderella in the pumpkin coach. It was pathetic, despicable, really.
But he didn’t despise them. He loved them, each one of them, dumb little tarts, even when they were pounding him with their fists and screaming into his face just like his whore of a mother had done when she was high from scoring off her latest pimp. To him, the girls were all diamonds in the rough. Restoring them to their purity was the least he could do.
The flurries were starting to thicken into a blinding squall. Keeping his eyes on the downward spiral of the narrow road, he punched a button on the steering wheel. A glance at the small screen embedded in the dashboard told him all was going as planned. There she was—Brittany, wasn’t that what she was calling herself? Yeah, something like that, or maybe Brianna—was huddled on the white leather sofa with the scrapbook in her lap.
He knew he should keep his eyes on the road, but he couldn’t help it. He had to peek again, just a quick glance as the wipers made one silent pass across the windshield.
She’d already gotten into the scotch. Her blonde head was down, her shapely legs in their skinny jeans drawn up beneath her. She wasn’t wearing the chain. He could see the box, though. It was right there beside her. No girl had ever refrained from opening it and going crazy with greed. But maybe this one was different. Maybe she was the one.
He lifted his eyes from the screen just as she was lifting the glass to her lips. Something, a shadow, was soaring directly over the hood of the SUV.
With a grunt, he braked sharply. Through the tinted glass of the passenger window, he caught a glimpse of heart-shaped hindquarters. His own heart pounded as the doe bounded off among the towering firs. After a few moments, he lifted his foot off the brake and flicked off the screen.
Although he knew he had to keep his eyes focused on the road, mentally he could at least flip through the pages of the scrapbook with his latest contestant. He’d saved the newspaper clippings of obituaries and death notices from his huge list of clients, choosing nobodies whose mortal remains were nothing more than shards and ashes thanks to him. What would she make of the window-washer who died at fifty-eight, not from some extraordinary plunge off a skyscraper but in a hospice bed? Or the waitress, age thirty-four, who died crossing a side street?
There were dozens of them, all within a twenty-five-mile radius of the city, many living within the five boroughs. Of the one hundred and sixty crematories in the state, he owned sixty of them. There’d been plenty of customers to choose from. Would she be the one who finally figured out how they were all linked?
“Not the people, babe, the place. Not the place they lived, not the place they died, but the place they rendered all unto me.” He laughed aloud at the pun—rendered. All the girl had to do was to see that every clipping mentioned one of his crematories. Of course he never gave any of them his real name, but all they had to do was to connect the dots: Dunn at Stony Brook, Dunn at Three Pines, Dunn at Manchester and fifty-seven more with the name Dunn.
Oh, yes, Rob Dunn was a clever one. What better name could he have given himself when he finally got out of the foster care system and landed his first job picking up corpses for a mortuary? That was where he learned how much money there was in death.
The flakes were smaller and falling much faster now, beady and brittle as they bounced off the windshield. Ahead on the narrow road swirls of snow swept back and forth. The flow reminded him of a beautiful woman’s hair swinging from side to side in a wild dance.
It always took great discipline for him to leave one of his guests and for a moment he thought of turning and going back up to the house. But then he’d be off schedule, and while he could do anything he pleased, he didn’t want anyone to know he’d been near the crematorium at all.
He had a skeleton staff that kept an eye on the place, a term that never failed to tickle his funny bone. It was the safest place of all his crematories to conduct a bit of private business, allowing him to set the incinerator for the requisite sixteen-hundred degrees before returning to the house.
And if he had to dispose of the latest loser, everything would be ready to begin her transformation from impure dross to the most flawless of diamonds.
Once he reached the bottom of the mountain he’d have to pass through four towns before getting to Dunn at Waldenford. Sometimes he stopped to buy a muffin and a cup of coffee in one of the greasy spoons that clung on because no chain would venture into such depressed territory. But today he wouldn’t stop.
He was sure people knew who he was and what he did for a living, but nobody spoke to him beyond the barest pleasantries. He’d accepted a long time ago that there was an aura about him. It actually amused him that people somehow thought that if they could avoid him they’d avoid death itself.
For the next five minutes he kept his eyes on the road and his mind almost a perfect blank, the way he did when he was on the brink of another Valentine’s Day surprise.
Would Brianna or whatever she called herself come through? Or would she join all the other girls in the chain as Number Forty?
How wise he’d been to save the hair of the first twenty girls, carrying on an age-old folk tradition by braiding and twining their locks into works of art. He’d hung these on the walls of his bedroom in the city, vaguely dissatisfied with this arrangement until technology opened up a whole new shining world to him.
A wealthy widow had mentioned a few years back that she was having her husband’s ashes incorporated into diamonds for a bereavement brooch. When he showed polite interest, she’d taken the sleek brochure out of her purse, telling him that this wasn’t a cheap simulated stone but a flawless diamond composed of natural elements.
He’d been amazed to read that these gemstones were even more expensive than mined stones at twenty thousand dollars a carat. He’d taken the hair out of one of the frames, burned it and sent it off with a great deal of skepticism. The result had been staggering. And he was hooked.
The bills of sale for each stone were part of the scrapbook. The yellow slips occupied the back half of the scrapbook, a page for each one. He always pasted a little photo of the girl to the receipt after he strangled her, wrapped her nude body in the chain of diamonds made from the ashes of her predecessors, and arranged her in a chastely classical pose. This “before” photo was added to the “after” photo when she’d been reduced to one pure, shining gem.
How he wished he could share these gorgeous photos with the nameless artisans at the jewelry company overseas who mounted each new stone in a twenty-four-carat bezel and added it to the chain. When they shipped the whole thing back, they always enclosed a beautifully scripted handwritten note with polite wishes for his health expressed in barely recognizable English. Such devotion deserved to be rewarded with proof that their craftsmanship combined with his own sense of esthetics truly created masterpieces.
But that would be mad, and he was no lunatic.
He longed with every fiber of his being to tune in on the girl again. As soon as it was safe, he’d indulge in just one peek. When he saw the red blinking light marking the intersection with the two-lane state highway, he flicked on the screen.
As he came to the stop sign, almost invisible beneath a heavy blanket of snow, the SUV picked up speed. He slammed his foot on the brake, but instead of stopping the vehicle veered across the unplowed highway to smashed head-on into an electrical pole.
He hit his head just hard enough to black out for a moment or two. When he came to, he saw stars. As they faded away he could see steam rising from the buckled hood.
Was the car about to explode?
He yanked hard at his seat belt, only making it cinch more tightly about him. The harder he struggled, the worse the squeezing in his chest got. Sweat trickled into his mouth, making him nauseous. When he heard voices and saw two faces trying to peer through the tinted glass of the passenger side window, he went weak with relief.
“Unlock the door,” one of them was saying. “Sir, can you hear me? Police. Unlock the door.”
Fiery pain shot down his arm but somehow his fingers obeyed. “Skidded,” he groaned.
But the officers ignored him, staring at the screen on the dashboard instead.
“You always watch porn when you drive, sir?” one asked.
“In a blizzard?” the other asked.
“Security camera,” he moaned. “Of my house… need to watch…”
The hooded heads turned toward each other before one leaned in again. “You saying that shot’s live?”
He could just make out the girl’s pearly skin glowing beneath at the loops of the diamond chain, naked breasts as beautiful as lilies, thighs like milk and honey.
His heart clenched like crumpled black velvet edged with flame.