He had yet, Mario decided, to get on a flight inside the US that left on time.
In Seattle, waiting for the boarding, he had felt like a sheep, or even better, a refugee from some war zone, sweaty, thirsty, tired, confused and utterly lonely, watching as the herd of arriving travelers left the gate and evacuated the plane for another one.
He had never seen anything like it in Europe. There, air travel still seemed to hold the crisp excitement of an adventure, something out of the ordinary and not to be attempted light-heartedly, but here, it was nothing more than getting on a bus, a sad, dispirited routine.
The First Class passengers were called, another unheard-off thing back home. They shuffled past, and finally, at long last, it was his turn.
He was a wise traveler by now; no window seat for him, the gawking days were over. Aisle, and easy access to the restroom, that was the thing.
The middle seat was empty, which was an unexpected bonus.
Mario was exhausted.
The readings on the West Coast had gone well enough, he had met lovely people and eaten great food, enjoyed the landscape and the rugged shoreline, listened to his hosts’ enthusiastic declarations of love for their home, but he had felt oddly displaced, disconnected from where he felt the real world was, too far from anything that mattered. The West Coast felt like a different planet, like a continent dropped off the edge of the world, and the many time zones between it and Europe did not help either.
The air had not smelled right. The ocean was on the wrong side of town, and the vegetation was so different he could not recognize most of the trees. In Vancouver, he had been down on the beach and drawn back from the water in a moment of panic, shocked by the idea of the Pacific vastness and the strange shores on its other side.
So now, at long last, he was heading back East, back toward home and places he felt he knew.
Newark greeted him with early morning heat.
In fact, it was not only heat but a slap with a wet sheet right out of a hot washing machine.
Mario stood on the curb, waiting for the car that was supposed to pick him up, and tried to take a breath. It felt like inhaling water, and pretty foul-tasting water too. The sky, low and grey, hung over the landscape like dirty dish rags, the tepid breeze touched his face as if the fingers of a middle-aged mermaid were trying to caress him. From the distance, he could hear sirens, police cars howling by on one of the convoluted highways, the echo dropping onto the street in a dead faint.
A black SUV pulled up right in front of him.
Stewart got out, a friendly grin on his face, and he looked just the way he had always done when they had Skyped, a little too round, a little too bald, and just on the verge of elderliness, the memory of youthful middle-age still in the way he carried himself.
“I wanted,” he said, “To get you a coffee and donuts to give you the proper New Jersey welcome, but there was a long line outside Dunkin Donuts, so you’ll have to settle for breakfast at the office. It’s good to finally see you in person.”
He helped Mario put his luggage in the trunk. “The boys are really curious about you. They think we don’t need a European profiler, not even for a visit, and they can’t wait to see what’s so special about you.”
“I’m not a profiler,” Mario mumbled. Already his shirt was sticking to his back, and he had hardly moved. This was worse than North Carolina, and that had been pretty ugly. But there, it had just been heat. Here, it was like being inside a Finnish sauna, and on the highest tier too.
“Yeah, you are.” Without looking into the rearview mirror Stewart drove off and entered a maelstrom of roads, loops upon loops, completely messing up Mario’s sense of direction within seconds.
“I’m going to take you,” he announced cheerfully, “Along the Pulaski Skyway so you get a good impression of where you are right away. This is New Jersey, my friend, and you’ve never seen anything like it, I bet.”
Which was true.
Mario, looking out of the car window, had never seen anything like it.
He stared down at scarred, dismal landscape spreading away in every direction, at rusty towers and high chimneys, at desolate wasteland of decrepit industrial yards, inlets of water, their limpid, oily waves sucking at dead, marshy earth, and highways bridges in the distance, their iron girders whale skeletons stranded in a world of refuse. Incredibly, there were houses, islands of life, sprinkled into this apocalyptic area, fingers of suburbia, undaunted by their surroundings. He wondered how children grew up there, in the midst of this nightmare, if there were parks he could not see, some pockets of green, some semblance of a garden, trees, flowers. All he recognized from here was grey, brown, black, and dead.
“There,” Stewart pointed into the distance.
Hovering, like a space ship, the skyline of Manhattan rose above the nightmare of New Jersey. Mario could name the buildings, he had been there before. They called to him, beacons of a happier place, one that he remembered fondly, and one that he could hardly wait to see again.
But for now, it would be Jersey City, and work.
Overpasses, they called the dark, filthy and spooky tunnels under the highways. He had no idea why they looked the way they did. But they certainly were the best place to deposit a dead body, and if a killer set his mind to it, like just now, he could make an art of placing his victims there.
So far, there had been fifteen, in Jersey City alone. And it would be his job to find the artist.