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Chapter One

Nightmare used a combat knife, a Busse Steel Heart E with a seven-and-a-half-inch blade. He made two cuts, a long arc that half-circled his nipple, then another arc beneath the first, smaller but carved with equal care. The effect was a rainbow with only two bands and a single color. When he lifted the blade, he could feel the blood on his chest, black worms crawling down his skin in the dark of his motel room.

From the warehouse across the old highway came the long hiss of air brakes and the rattle of heavy suspension as a rig and trailer pulled out onto the potholed asphalt and geared away into the evening. There was an air-conditioning unit under the window, but Nightmare never used it. Even in the worst heat, he preferred to keep the drapes pulled and the windows open in order to track the sounds outside his room.

In the dark, he reached to a wooden bowl on the stand beside the bed. He filled his hand with ash from the bowl, and he rubbed the ash into the wounds to raise and set them. It was painful, this ritual, but pain was part of who he was, part of being Nightmare. He performed the ritual in the dark because that was also elemental to his being. He loved the dark, as a man will love anything that has taken him into itself and made him a part of it.

It was past time, he knew, but there was no hurry. He put on his sunglasses, then took the remote from beside the bowl on the stand and turned on the television. The set was old, and the signal flowed through a faulty connection. The picture bloomed, vibrated, then settled down.

Barbara Walters was on the screen. She sat in a wing chair upholstered in a red floral design. She wore a blue dress, a gold scarf draped over her left shoulder, pinned with a sapphire brooch. From a portrait above the mantel beyond her right shoulder, George Washington seemed to look down on her sternly. The broadcast was live from the Library of the White House. Barbara leaned forward, her face a study of deep concentration as she listened. She nodded, then she spoke, but soundlessly because Nightmare had muted the volume to nothing. Finally she smiled, totally unaware that on the television screen, dead center on her forehead, was a red dot from the laser sight on Nightmare's Beretta.

A different camera angle. The eyes of the man whose face now filled the screen were like two copper pennies, solid and dependable. Every hair of his reddish brown mane was under perfect control. He wore a beautifully tailored blue suit, a crisp white shirt, a red tie knotted in a tight Windsor and dimpled in a way that mirrored the dimple in his chin. Daniel Clay Dixon, president of the United States, faced the camera and the nation. When his lips moved, Nightmare could imagine that voice, the soft accent that whispered from the western plains, not so pronounced that it might prejudice a listener into thinking of an ignorant cowpoke, but enough to suggest a common man, a man of the people, the kind of man whose example encouraged children to believe they could grow up to be anything they wanted, that nothing in this great land of opportunity was beyond anyone's reach.

Nightmare had no interest in the words the silent voice spoke. They would be lies, he knew. Anyone who rose to the top in a government always rose on a bubble inflated by lies. He concentrated on keeping the red laser dot steady on the black pupil of the president's left eye.

After Clay Dixon talked awhile, he glanced at something to his right, off-camera at the moment, but obviously of tremendous importance to him.

And then it happened. What Nightmare had been patiently waiting for all week, had been considering in almost every moment of his thinking.

The First Lady appeared.

In the soft dark, Nightmare wrapped himself around a hard vengeance.

Kathleen Jorgenson Dixon's eyes were pale gray-blue. Although she looked composed, there was something immeasurably sad about those eyes. To Nightmare they seemed like two unhealed wounds. She'd been hurt, he could tell. But that didn't matter. Her suffering was nothing compared to the suffering she'd caused. He was glad for the ritual of the blood and the ash and the pain, because it kept him strong.

"For the murder of David Moses," Nightmare pronounced, "your sentence is death."

He sighted the Beretta. The laser dot settled in the dark at the back of the First Lady's throat. Slowly he squeezed the trigger, and grimly he whispered, "Bang."

Copyright © 2003 by William Kent Krueger

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