Jefferson Winter noticed the blonde-haired woman the second he stepped into the diner. She was hidden behind the pages of a newspaper at the back table, a coffee mug in front of her. Three nights running he’d been coming here and this was the first customer he had seen. The newspaper dropped and she met his gaze. There was nothing in the look. No curiosity, no smile, no invitation. The newspaper went back up as quickly as it had come down, and the moment passed.
He pulled the door closed behind him and walked over to the counter, glad to get out of the cold. Early October in New York and the days were mostly pleasant, but the nights were starting to bite. The place was tiny, just eight tables and one guy taking the orders and doing the cooking. It was long and narrow, the tables lined up against one wall, the counter and grill along the other, a walkway in-between. The air smelled unhealthily good and was layered with grease so thick you could feel it on your skin. It was a smell that got better with every step. Love Me Tender was playing quietly on a stereo perched on a high shelf, the old Elvis song working in counterpoint to the rumble of the dying heater.
Winter could see the woman’s reflection in the mirror behind the counter. The newspaper was in the way so all he saw was a pair of black leather gloves and the top of her head. Her gloves were tight enough to make out the outline of her fingers, and the fact that she wasn’t wearing any chunky rings. It didn’t look as though there was a wedding band, but it was impossible to say for sure. The harsh lighting created the illusion that her platinum blonde hair was actually white.
There was no evidence to suggest that she had company. The other three chairs were pushed hard up against the table and there was only one mug. So what was she doing here? She could be waiting for someone but, given that it was two in the morning, he wasn’t convinced. If it had been the middle of the day then the question would be redundant since it wouldn’t be that big a deal. A woman on her own enjoying a lunchtime coffee wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, however, anyone sitting on their own in a diner in the middle of the night would. So what was her story? Winter could see a number of possibilities. Maybe she’d been out clubbing, or maybe she was a shift worker. Or maybe, like him, she suffered from occasional bouts of insomnia.
‘Same as usual?’
He turned from the mirror. The cook was standing there wiping his hands on his dirty apron. His accent was impenetrable, the words barely comprehensible. The dark hair and complexion placed him somewhere to the south of the Mediterranean. He was in his fifties, skinny and tall, and he walked with a slight stoop, like he was apologising for those extra inches.
‘Same as usual,’ Winter replied.
The grunted response meant they were done talking. The cook poured a coffee and Winter added two sugars then looked for somewhere to sit. He was tempted by the tables at the rear where it was warmer, but habit won out and he went for the table next to the window. He preferred window seats because he liked watching the world go by. Not that there would be much to see. This time of day, even New York slowed down.
Winter shook off his jacket, draped it over the back of a chair and got himself comfortable. He’d had the jacket for years. Suede on the outside, sheepskin on the inside, and as comfortable as a well-worn pair of sneakers. He dug out his Zippo, clicked the lid open and flicked up a flame. For a moment he just sat there watching the fire dance, then he clicked the lid shut. Click, flick, click. The smoking ban was a pain in the ass.
The cook was busy at the grill, singing along to Elvis in a tuneless monotone. Judging by the way he was shaping and twisting the words, he’d learnt the lyrics phonetically. Winter tuned him out and unwrapped his cutlery. He laid the fork and knife neatly on the table and stared out of the window, losing himself in the neon-streaked darkness.
For a while he just sat there, staring at nothing. He’d been in New York for the past eight days helping the city’s police department hunt down Ryan McCarthy, a serial killer who’d targeted young businessmen. As much as he liked the city, now that McCarthy was in custody there was no reason to stay. His next stop was Paris, where he had another killer to hunt. That’s the way it had been since he left the FBI. Finish one case, move on to the next. The truth of the matter was that things hadn’t been much different when he was with the FBI. Unfortunately, he existed in a world where there would never be a shortage of monsters.
He sipped his coffee, the details of the Paris case turning through his head. He already had some rough ideas, but nothing he was ready to share. The files the police had sent through were lacking in detail, and prompted more questions than answers. This was nothing new. Written reports tended to lack detail because the people writing them were so overworked.
The squeak of a chair moving against the floor tiles pulled him away from Paris and back to the diner. He looked up from his coffee and saw the blonde-haired woman reflected in the window. She was walking along the narrow aisle between the tables and the counter. She moved gracefully, feet padding, body rolling.
The first thing that struck him was how thin she was. Her facial bones were pressing tight against the skin and her leather jacket was sitting as though it was a couple of sizes too big. She would never be classed as pretty, but nor was she unattractive. She sat right in the middle of those two extremes. With a little make up she could be made to shine. He estimated that she was in her mid-twenties, and more or less the same height as him, five-nine, give or take an inch. She was wearing a pair of scruffy Levi’s jeans and her baggy leather jacket was zipped up to the chin. Her Converse sneakers were old and battered.
He was wondering again what she was doing here. The way she was dressed didn’t provide much in the way of clues. They were clothes that could be worn to work, or worn to a bar If she was an insomniac she’d probably got up and put on the first thing she could find. That’s what he had done. He studied her reflection more closely and decided that she hadn’t been out drinking. She was walking straight and steady, and seemed to be in full control of her body. Nor was there any food on her table. The reason you came to a place like this after a night out was to get a plateful of carb-heavy food to soak up the alcohol.
At the end of the day it didn’t really matter why she was here. He was leaving for Paris, and she was about to disappear into the night. That’s how this one played out. Life could be broken down into a series of encounters, some significant, most not. For the tiniest slice of time his orbit had coincided with hers. In a world of seven billion people, the likelihood of their orbits ever colliding again was zilch.
Three strides from the door she changed direction and stopped at his table.
She nodded towards the empty seat on the opposite side of the table. It took Winter almost a whole second to process the fact that the question was aimed at him.
‘Be my guest.’
She smiled and sat. The smile was playful and bright. Up close, her eyes looked too green to be natural. Interesting. She dressed casually but then disguised her eyes with contact lenses. Her platinum blonde hair had clearly come from a bottle, and was too long to be classed as short. It looked like she’d styled it herself with kitchen scissors. She stared across the table at his dead-rock-star T-shirt and the scruffy hooded top, stared at his white hair. Then she laid the folded newspaper on the table and placed a gloved hand on top of it. Winter glanced at the newspaper then met her gaze.
‘It’s good to meet you, Jefferson.’
Of all the things she could have said, this was the last thing he’d expected. He looked at her more closely. He’d never seen her before. That much he was certain of. ‘Who are you? More to the point, how do you know who I am?’
‘I’d rather not say.’
‘Since you know who I am, how about you tell me your name?’
She flashed a smile. ‘I’d rather not say.
‘Okay, so what can I do for you?’
For a moment the woman said nothing. She was staring across the table again. Studying him. Checking him out. Winter waited for her to speak first.
‘You know, I expected you to be taller. More impressive. But isn’t that always the way? You build someone up in your mind then, when you finally meet them, it’s always a disappointment.’
Winter said nothing and the woman laughed.
‘I’ve read the psychology books, too, Jefferson. Keep quiet and your opponent will be compelled to fill the silence. That’s what’s going on here, right? You’re playing mind games with me. You’re trying to suss me out.’
Winter smiled. ‘What do you expect? Since you know who I am, I’m assuming that you also know what I do for living.’
‘So what have you got so far? And don’t play innocent and pretend you’ve got nothing because you’ve been checking me out since the second you stepped through the door.’
‘I could ask you the same thing.’
The woman tutted and slowly shook her head. ‘I asked first. And I want the truth. I’m a big girl. Believe me, there’s very little you could say that would hurt me.’
The last statement was intentionally loaded. Was there a story, or was she just trying to make herself out to be more interesting than she actually was? Winter gave it a couple of seconds in case she had anything else to add. She smiled across the table and nodded for him to go on. Her eyes were wide. He could see the edges of the coloured lenses.
‘You’re a game player,’ he said. ‘That much is clear from this conversation. It’s all move and countermove. You’re also narcissistic. As far as you’re concerned you’re sitting there slap bang at the centre of the universe. Also, you want me to believe that you’re this great big mystery that’s just waiting to be solved.’
‘Have you looked in the mirror lately? You could be describing yourself.’
‘You don’t know anything about me.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. I know exactly who you are. What’s more, I know what you are.’
‘And what am I?’
‘You’re a work in progress.’
Winter laughed. ‘And what the hell is that supposed to mean?’
The woman didn’t answer. She tapped the newspaper with her fingertips, then lifted her head so she was looking over his shoulder. Her gaze was aimed at the street, but she wasn’t really seeing anything out there. Winter waited for her to speak again. He was more than comfortable with long silences. He was also comfortable dealing with crazy people. Right now, he was just trying to work out what brand of crazy she was.
‘Have you ever wondered what it’s like to kill someone?’ she asked.
‘Liar. You’re the man who gets inside the heads of serial killers. You can’t do that without imagining what it’s like to kill.’
‘Okay I’ll concede that much, but you’re talking about actually killing a person. What I do is light years away from that.’
‘Believe what you like.’
A movement by the counter caught Winter’s eye. He looked up and saw the cook coming through the flap with a plate in his hand. The woman glanced over her shoulder, following his gaze. She looked back at Winter and waited for him to meet her eye.
‘We could kill him,’ she whispered. ‘That would be fun, don’t you think?’
Winter said nothing.
‘Anyone is capable of murder if they are pushed hard enough.’
‘You’re wrong. Murder is a choice. You don’t have to pull the trigger, you choose to.’
She shrugged. ‘We’ll have to agree to differ on that one, Jefferson.’
The cook stopped at the table and put the plate down. Winter said a distracted ‘thank you’ then turned back to the woman. Before he could say anything she pulled a food knife out of her pocket and stood up. She grabbed hold of the cook, then spun him into her body and cupped the back of his head in her left hand. Her eyes were sparkling and she was biting her bottom lip. She took a sharp intake of breath then plunged the knife into the cook’s eye, all the way to the hilt. Surprise flashed momentarily in his good eye, his face went slack and he dropped to the floor. The sound of his body hitting the tiles got Winter moving. He went to stand but the woman put her hand up, stopping him in his tracks.
‘Whatever you’ve got planned, it won’t work. Right now, I can think of ten different ways to kill you.’
Winter looked up at her, every muscle in his body tensed. Elvis had moved on to singing Suspicious Minds. The emphysemic heater was banging as loudly as his heart. She leaned forward and he caught the scent of her shampoo, the scent of her soap. She was close enough to reach out and grab hold of. But then what? He’d come bottom in every self-defence class he’d ever taken at Quantico. Mind games he could manage, but when things got physical he was clueless. She moved closer, her lips brushing the edge of his ear.
‘If you follow me I will kill you. But don’t worry, I’ll be seeing you again real soon.’
She stepped back and smiled, and Winter stayed very still. He was working hard to keep his face passive, his breathing easy. She was looking for a reaction, but there was no way she was getting one. Her smile turned into a laugh and she turned to leave. A second later the dull bell above the door clanged and she was gone.