"Mom is still alive, but she's going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday," Amanda Martin told the deputy chief, who didn't even think to question the girl; she'd already proved she knew more than he and all his colleagues in Homicide put together. The woman in question was being held at an unknown location somewhere in the seven thousand square miles of the San Francisco Bay Area; if they were to find her alive, they had only a few hours, and the deputy chief had no idea where or how to begin.
They referred to the first murder as the Case of the Misplaced Baseball Bat, so as not to insult the victim by giving it a more explicit name. "They" were five teenagers and an elderly man who met up online for a role-playing game called Ripper.
On the morning of October 11, 2011, at 8:15 a.m., the fourth-grade students of Golden Hills Elementary School raced into the gym to whistle blasts from their coach in the doorway. The vast, modern, well-equipped gym — built using a generous donation from a former pupil who had made a fortune in the property market before the bubble burst — was also used for graduation ceremonies, school plays, and concerts. Normally the fourth-graders would run two laps around the basketball court to warm up, but this morning they came to a shuddering halt in the middle of the hall, shocked by the grisly sight of a man sprawled across a vaulting horse, his pants pooled around his ankles, his buttocks bared, and the handle of a baseball bat inserted into his rectum. The stunned children stood motionless around the corpse until one nine-year-old boy, more daring than his classmates, bent down, ran his finger through the dark stain on the floor, and realized that it was not chocolate but congealed blood; a second boy picked up a spent bullet cartridge and slipped it into his pocket, intending to swap it during recess for a porn magazine, while a girl filmed the scene on her cell phone. Just then the coach bounded over to the little group of students, whistle trilling with every breath, and, seeing this strange spectacle — which did not look like a prank — suffered a panic attack. The fourth-graders raised the alarm; other teachers quickly appeared and dragged the children kicking and screaming from the gym, followed reluctantly by the coach. The teachers removed the baseball bat, and as they laid the corpse out on the floor, they noticed a bullet hole in the center of the victim's forehead. They covered the body with a pair of sweatpants, closed the door, and waited for the police, who arrived precisely nineteen minutes later, by which time the crime scene had been so completely contaminated it was impossible to tell what the hell had happened.
A little later, during the first press conference, Bob Martin announced that the victim had been identified as one Ed Staton, forty-nine, a school security guard. "Tell us about the baseball bat!" a prurient tabloid journalist yelled. Furious to discover that information about the case had been leaked, which was not only humiliating to Ed Staton but possibly damaging to the reputation of the school, the deputy chief snapped that such details would be addressed during the autopsy.
"What about suspects?"
"This security guard, was he gay?"
Deputy Chief Martin ignored the barrage of questions and brought the press conference to a close, assuring those present that the Personal Crimes Division would keep the media informed of all pertinent facts in the investigation now under way — an investigation he would personally oversee.
A group of twelfth-graders from a nearby high school had been in the gym the night before, rehearsing a Halloween musical involving zombies and rock 'n' roll, but they did not find out what had happened until the following day. By midnight — some hours before the crime was committed, according to police — there was no one in the school building. Three teenagers in the parking lot, loading their instruments into a van, had been the last people to see Ed Staton alive. In their statements they said that the guard had waved to them before driving off in a small car at about twelve thirty. Although they were some way off, and there was no lighting in the parking lot, they had clearly recognized Staton's uniform in the moonlight, but could not agree on the color or make of the car he was driving or whether anyone had been in the vehicle with him. The police quickly worked out that it was not the victim's car, since Staton's silver-gray SUV was parked a few yards from the band's van. It was suggested that Staton had driven off with someone who was waiting for him, and who came back to the school later to pick up his car.
At a second press conference, the deputy chief of the Personal Crimes Division explained that the guard was not due to finish his shift until 6:00 a.m., and that they had no information about why he had left the school that night, returning later only to find death lying in wait. Martin's daughter Amanda, who was watching the press conference on TV, phoned her father to correct him: it was not death that had been lying in wait for Ed Staton, but a murderer.
For the Ripper players, this first murder was the start of what would become a dangerous obsession. The questions they were faced with were those that also puzzled the police: Where did the guard go in the brief period between being seen by the band members and the estimated time of death? How did he get back to the school? Why had the guard not tried to defend himself before being shot through the head? What was the significance of a baseball bat being inserted into such an intimate orifice?
Perhaps Ed Staton had deserved his fate, but the kids who played Ripper were not interested in moral issues; they focused strictly on the facts. Up to this point the game had revolved around fictional nineteenth-century crimes in a fog-shrouded London where characters were faced with scoundrels armed with axes and icepicks, archetypal villains intent on disturbing the peace of the city. But when the players agreed to Amanda Martin's suggestion that they
investigate murders in present-day San Francisco — a city no less shrouded in fog — the game took on a more realistic dimension. Celeste Roko, the famous astrologer, had predicted a bloodbath in the city, and Amanda decided to take this unique opportunity to put the art of divination to the test. To do so she enlisted the help of the other Ripper players and her best friend, Blake Jackson — her grandfather, coincidentally — little suspecting that the game would turn violent and that her mother, Indiana Jackson, would number among its victims.
The kids who played Ripper were a select group of freaks and geeks from around the world who had first met up online to hunt down and destroy the mysterious Jack the Ripper, tackling obstacles and enemies along the way. As games master, Amanda was responsible for plotting these adventures, carefully bearing in mind the strengths and weaknesses of the players' alter egos.
A boy in New Zealand who had been paralyzed by an accident and was confined to a wheelchair — but whose mind was still free to explore fantastical worlds, to live in the past or in the future — created the character of Esmeralda, a cunning and curious gypsy girl. A shy, lonely teenager who lived with his mother in New Jersey, and who for two years now had left his bedroom only to go to the bathroom, played Sir Edmond Paddington, a bigoted, cantankerous
retired English colonel — an invaluable character, since he was an expert in weapons and military strategy. A nineteen-year-old girl in Montreal who had spent much of her short life in the hospital suffering from an eating disorder, had created Abatha, a psychic capable of reading minds, manipulating memories, and communicating with the dead. A thirteen-year-old African American orphan with an IQ of 156 and a scholarship to an academy in Reno for gifted children decided to be Sherlock Holmes, since logic and deductive reasoning came effortlessly to him.
In the beginning, Amanda did not have her own character. Her role was simply to oversee the game and make sure players respected the rules; but given the impending bloodbath, she allowed herself to bend those rules a little. She moved the action of the game from London, 1888, to San Francisco, 2011. Furthermore — now in direct breach of the rules — she created for herself a henchman named Kabel, a dim-witted but loyal and obedient hunchback she tasked with obeying her every whim, however ridiculous. It didn't escape her grandfather's notice that the henchman's name was an anagram of his own. At sixty-four, Blake Jackson was much too old for children's games, but he agreed to participate in Ripper so he and his granddaughter would have something more in common than horror movies, chess matches, and the brainteasers they set each other — puzzles and problems he sometimes managed to solve by consulting a couple of friends who were professors of philosophy and mathematics at Berkeley.
From RIPPER by Isabel Allende Copyright 2014 by Isabel Allende. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.