Body of Work

THE scrabble of rodents on the roof is only mimicry, the work of wind and weeping willows.

Karen Barbour
Karen Barbour

James Brecht thinks the sound is made by slithering ropes dangling from a hovering helicopter. He fears a SWAT team might soon descend.

When I note that we can hear no engine noise or rotor blades, Brecht says, “You guys have stealth choppers. Hush-mode flight. Quiet as dirigibles. I know all about it, Harry.”

I have told him my first name, in hope of establishing a bond.

Now I risk stoking his paranoia. “But we have stealth ropes, too. Made of frictionless nanofiber. You’d never hear them.”

“Frictionless? How do you hold onto them?”

“Very tightly, Jim. And with nanofiber gloves.”

People believe anything if you use words like nano and quantum.

On the sofa, Nora Sparrow believes none of it. Her gimlet-eyed stare conveys her wish that I would be more earnest, more solemn, less myself, more Denzel Washington. But she says nothing.

My conversation with Brecht rivets her. Of course, she is allowed no other entertainment, restrained as she is by the chain that links her left ankle to a ringbolt in the floor.

Brecht sits in an armchair, dressed in black, hair as overstyled as that of the more exuberant contestants on “American Idol.” I could take him out in two seconds, if he did not remain so diligent about keeping a thumb on the BOOM button of the remote detonator.

Nora’s gaze never strays to her kidnapper’s right hand. She wears a vest packed with enough explosives to take the house off the real-estate market forever.

In the armchair across the coffee table from Brecht, I say, “This is just a date gone bad, Jim. I’ve had dates turn out worse.”

I am so alive, as I will never be again. His thumb is on the button, and I am so alive.

He is concerned about my bona fides. “So you do nothing but hostage negotiations?”

“I’m a homicide detective first, a negotiator as needed.”

He pretends calm, but his eyes shine with a desperation as poignant as that of a politician hooked up to a polygraph. “Homicide detective? I haven’t killed anyone.”

Raising my eyebrows, I point to the naked dead woman standing in a corner of the living room, supported by a metal armature.

“Not tonight,” Brecht says. “I haven’t killed anyone tonight.”

“Which puts you in a strong negotiating position,” I assure him. “As long as no one dies tonight, you’re holding all the cards.”

Post-mortem, the blonde in the corner had been treated with antibacterial solutions and preservatives before being submerged in a polyurethane bath that sealed her in an airtight glaze. Brecht had been enchanted by an exhibition of cadaver art in a city museum. He thought he might be talented enough to create better work than he saw in that display — and if not better, at least more erotic.

An equally glossy and dead brunette is wired to a straight-backed chair to one side of the fireplace.

“Why don’t I take the vest of explosives off Ms. Sparrow,” I suggest, “and wear it myself? You let her go, earn some good will.”

Suspicion narrows his eyes. “Maybe you want to die. If you want to die, then you’re no good as a hostage. I know Nora here doesn’t want to die.”

Nora Sparrow remains silent.

Brecht had overpowered her in a parking lot, subdued her with chloroform brewed from an Internet recipe, and brought her to his home. While he was out of the room, Nora regained consciousness on the sofa, chained to the ringbolt.

On the coffee table had been a few magazines, two of which featured mailing labels with his name and street address.

When Brecht reappeared, he had Nora Sparrow’s purse, through which he’d searched for a cellphone and for items that might be used as weapons. Returning it, he directed her to repair her makeup, which had been smeared during the parking lot struggle.

He left the room again, to change from his abduction clothes to an outfit more conducive to romance. As he told me, “I begin with them on the sofa, then move them to the bedroom.”

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