The first time Jane met Kimball Cho, he promptly forgot him.
Which stood to reason he rationalized later—one of the brain’s most fascinating qualities was the way it coped, or didn’t copy as the case may be, with extreme stress. He had taken ruthless advantage of that quality more than a few times in his life and knew better than most how extreme situations—the death of a loved one, for example—could turn a person’s world upside down, inside out.
But this… This abomination, displayed so lovingly across his own bed for him to find, well…
He didn’t remember calling the police. Didn’t remember how he got to the bathroom. It was as if his world was a record and the needle kept skipping grooves:
Open the door to find the painted face on the wall…
See the red, red bodies on the bed…
On his knees, hand stretched out.
Skip, skip, skip…
He heard them break in, heard them race around the house, men and women calling out, “Sir? Police! Sir?”
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t and he never knew how long it took them to find him. In the bathroom, on his knees in front of toilet.
When a figure entered his field of vision and knelt at his side, he didn’t flinch, didn’t look over. He felt heat, the phantom weight of a hesitant hand that hovered over his back without ever touching and he realized he’d lost his jacket somewhere and his shirt was wet with sweat.
Or maybe it was blood. His hands and arms were slick with it and he tried to remember how much blood the average human body held because it was so damn much…
The person next to him slid closer.
“I’m trying to throw up,” he said in his most reasonable voice. It was important for them to know that he was still in possession of his faculties, that he wasn’t crazy. And that they might want to get out of the way before the sickness inside managed to crawl its way out of his belly.
The hand that hovered landed gently with just fingertips, like a butterfly. A deep, steady voice said, “I know.”
“Did you—” His voice broke on the question.
“Yes, I saw them. I’m—”
Jane jerked his hand up and stopped what was sure to be the first of the many, ‘I’m sorry’s.’ “Don’t.” His voice, the voice he’d always taken such pride in, was fractured, ragged, and he squeezed his eyes closed. “God, don’t…”
The hand began stroking, up and down, up and down and the pressure, light as it was, called the pain from its hiding place and it slithered up, burning first his gut, then his chest, then his throat. He clawed at his knees and bent over, trying to force it all back down because he didn’t want to do this, not in front of a stranger.
It was no use. He gritted his teeth and made a sound that shocked even him and then did it again.
The hand became hands and they pulled and tugged and Jane fell sideways into arms that wrapped around him. The voice whispered in his ear, “It’s okay. They’re all outside. The door is locked. No one can see.”
Jane managed to turn his head, inch by inch, and looked into dark eyes that matched the steady voice. He nodded and took a deep breath and—
The needle skipped…
His throat hurt and his face and hair were soaked, his hands were numb with cold, as if they’d been dipped in ice. His body, though, was warm. He tried to swallow and choked.
A glass was pressed into his hand and together, they put it to his lips. He drank. The water eased the burn in his throat, the pain behind his eyes. He pushed the glass away and made some movement to get loose.
The hands guided him back to lay against the wall, boneless, like a rag doll.
He was still in his bathroom, slumped against the wallpaper his wife had replaced just the month before. The lights had been lowered and the place smelled like vomit. He turned his head, slowly, because he was weak and dizzy and his head felt as if it would float free from his body if he moved too fast.
Next to him was man, mid-thirties, Asian, probably Korean. His jacket was crumpled on the floor and his pale blue shirt was open at the collar—it was damp, plastered to his chest. His throat was shiny. Jane wondered if it was raining. It hadn’t been when he got home, but a cold front was supposed to move in around midnight and—
“Are you all right?” the man said.
“I cleaned you up.”
“Did I throw up on you?”
The man had a voice like honey. People with voices like honey generally did well in Jane’s profession and his gut clenched again at the reminder of what his profession had just brought him. At what he had just brought himself because this was no one’s fault but his own. “Who—?”
“Cho. Agent Kimball Cho. I’m with the CBI.”
“California Bureau of Investigation?”
The man nodded.
The agent didn’t have to ask what he meant. “Half an hour, give or take.”
Jane closed his eyes briefly. He’d never liked strangers in his house, but now…
“They’ll need another twenty or thirty and then you can go out. My boss, Agent Lisbon, will want to speak to you. Forensics will take a couple hours.”
“Am I—” Jane made a vague gesture.
“No, they don’t need me.”
“He probably got in through the back door.”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“It’s Red John.” The words hurt. He hoped the agent wouldn’t ask if he was sure because he didn’t think he could say the name again.
But Agent Cho just nodded gravely and the subtle pity in his eyes made Jane wanted to cry and rage all over again.
A shadow broke the light curling in from under the door. Someone paused, then tapped gently. “Cho?” It was a woman’s voice, low and hoarse.
Agent Cho didn’t look away when he called out, “Give me a minute.” He pushed up to a crouch and then paused. He touched Jane’s knee. “I have to go. That’s my boss. She’ll be by soon. She’ll probably want you to come down to the office.” He hesitated again, then rose and looked down, his face blank except for his eyes…
“I’ll be all right,” Jane said because there was nothing else to say. He wasn’t all right and he never would be again, and it really didn’t matter.
Agent Cho nodded.
“Will I see you again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then just in case—” Jane held up his hand and Agent Cho took it as if reaching for something fragile. They shook hands. Jane didn’t want to let go, but he did.
Agent Cho left without another word. Jane heard him say something to the women outside and—
And the needle skipped again.