Through the Grinder

PROLOGUE

SHE had to die.

The Genius knew this and was absolutely fine with it. The problem, of course, was how.

In the Genius’s view, almost any problem could be solved through study. So it was no surprise when the study of Valerie Lathem’s life yielded the solution to her death.

The air on that pale November morning displayed an especially cruel bite, stabbing at cheeks, chins, and all other areas of exposed human flesh. Still, the Genius stood with the usual patience at the usual bus stop, pretending to wait for the usual bus. Reading the paper was usual enough, too, but the Times articles felt incomprehensible today, and the wait became interminable.

When the twenty-seven-year-old woman finally emerged from her dingy brick apartment building, the Genius followed the pert face and slender figure, the shoulder-length retro flip hair the color of rancid butter, the black boots with heels too high, green cargos a size too small, and that cheap red leather jacket she’d purchased at SoHo Jeans the day before.

With brisk steps, the woman followed Bleecker across Sixth Avenue, the wide, high-traffic chasm dividing modern Manhattan from the year 1811, when city fathers and their Euclidean plans for perpendicular streets were defied by village residents who refused to have their district’s twisted lanes made straight.

For two hundred years, this winding web of cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, and secluded pathways has obeyed no logical pattern. The frosty air has been tinged with the acrid smell of logs burning on nineteenth century hearths. Gas lamps have been flickering near gated mews, hidden gardens, or sedate churchyards. And the sidewalks have edged not skyscrapers arranged in uniform grids, but a low-lying landscape of three-and four-story row houses, many now lodging offbeat boutiques, pricey bistros, and the occasional dark-paneled pub—all closed for business at this early hour.

A corner on Hudson was the woman’s first stop, the site of a four-story Federal-style townhouse occupied for the last ten decades by the Village Blend coffeehouse. As she reached for the old brass handle, the beveled glass door swung wide, vomiting out three pubescent NYU students with a gust of roasting coffee.

“Ah, yes,” whispered the genius, “that heavenly smell…”

The earthy aroma drifted across the cobblestones on the crisp, fall air—a siren’s call of freshly frothed cappuccinos, warm pastries, anise biscotti, and bracing espressos. But entering the Blend was not an option. Not for the Genius. Not until the objective was achieved.

“One push. Timed just right. One simple push.”

Until then, there would be no cozy fireplace, no foamed milk, no buttery croissant. Across the street, the Genius shifted from foot to foot on the cold sidewalk, eyes peering through the Blend’s twelve-foot-tall front windows.

Like trendy cattle, a dozen customers milled around the coffee bar counter. The woman placed her order with a lanky young man, waited a few minutes, then collected a paper cup from a petite brunette.

At last, the door swung wide again. An enviable puff of aromatic steam rose from the cup when it hit the cold air. For a moment, Valerie Lathem’s snug green cargo pants paused on the sidewalk to touch her full lips to the edge of the lid. A shiver of delight followed, and the Genius struggled against a sharp memory of another place the woman’s lips had touched…that place on him…

And on other men.

For a moment, the Genius had trouble breathing. “One push. Timed just right…”

Then the Slut continued her journey, hiking north and east, to Fourteenth and Broadway, where a wide public area of grass, tress, and benches formed Union Square Park.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, the wide concrete border to the west of