Conspiracy in death, p.13
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       Conspiracy in Death, p.13

         Part #8 of In Death series by J. D. Robb

  Eve put her vehicle on auto, letting it drive aimlessly while she ate. And she thought. The city swirled around her, the bump and grind of street traffic, the endless drone of air commuters. Stores advertised their annual inventory clearance sales with the endless monologue from the blimps overhead or huge, splashy signs.

  Bargain hunters braved the frigid temperatures and shivered on people glides as they went about their business. It was a bad time for pickpockets and scam artists. No one stood still long enough to be robbed or conned.

  Still, she spotted a three-card monte game and more than one sneak thief on airskates.

  If you wanted something badly enough, she mused, a little inconvenience wouldn't stop you.

  Routine, she thought. It was all a routine, the grifters and the muggers and the purse grabbers had theirs. And the public knew they were there and simply hoped they could avoid contact.

  And the sidewalk sleepers had theirs. They would shiver and suffer through the winter and hope to evade the lick of death that came with subzero temperatures while it lapped at their cribs.

  No one paid much attention if they were successful or not. Is that what he'd counted on? That no one would pay much attention? Neither of her victims had had close family to ask questions and make demands. No friends, no lovers.

  She hadn't heard a single report on the recent killing on any of the news and information channels. It didn't make interesting copy, she supposed. It didn't bump ratings.

  And she smiled to herself, wondering how Nadine Furst would feel about the offer of a one-on-one exclusive. Munching on a fry, she put a call through to the reporter.

  "Furst. Make it fast and make it good. I'm on air in ten."

  "Want a one-on-one, Nadine?"

  "Dallas." Nadine's foxy face glowed with a smile. "What do I have to do for it?"

  "Just your job. I've got a homicide—sidewalk sleeper—"

  "Hold it. No good. We did a feature last month on sleepers. They freeze, they get sliced. We do our public interest bit twice a year. It's too soon for another."

  "This one got sliced—sliced open, then his heart was removed and taken from the scene."

  "Well that's a happy thought. If you're working a cult angle, we did a feature in that area in October for Halloween. My producer's not going to go for another. Not for a sleeper. Now, a feature on you and Roarke, on what it's like inside your marriage, that I could run with."

  "Inside my marriage is my business, Nadine. I've got a retired LC who ran ponies. She was sliced open a couple of months back. Somebody took her kidneys."

  The slight irritation in Nadine's eyes cleared, and they sharpened. "Connected?"

  "Do your job," Eve suggested. "Then call my office and ask me that question again."

  She disengaged and shifted the car back to manual.

  "That was pretty slick, Dallas."

  "She'll dig up more in an hour than six research droids could in a week. Then she'll call and ask me for an official statement and interview. Being a cooperative kind of woman, I'll give it to her."

  "You ought to make her jump through a few hoops, just to keep up tradition."

  "Yeah, but I'll keep the hoops wide and I'll keep them low. Put us back on log, Peabody. We're going to check out Spindler's place, and I want it on record. If anybody has any doubt the connection's been made, I want them to know it has. I want them to start to sweat."

  The crime scene had been cleared weeks before, but Eve wasn't looking for physical evidence. She wanted impressions, the lay of the land, and hopefully, a conversation or two.

  Spindler had lived in one of the quick-fix buildings that had been tossed up to replace those that had crumbled or been destroyed around the time of the Urban Wars.

  The plan had been for fast, temporary housing to be replaced by more solid and aesthetically pleasing structures within the decade, but several decades later, several of the ugly, sheer-sided metal buildings remained in place.

  A street artist had had a marvelous time spray painting naked couples in various stages of copulation over the dull gray surface. Eve decided his style and perspective were excellent, as was his sense of place. This particular building housed the majority of street LCs in that area.

  There was no outside security camera, no palm plate. If there had ever been such niceties in place, they had long ago been looted or vandalized.

  She walked into a cramped, windowless foyer that held a line of scarred mailboxes and a single elevator that was padlocked.

  "She had 4C," Peabody said, anticipating Eve, then looked at the stained stairwell with its swaybacked treads. "I guess we walk up."

  "You'll work off your lunch."

  Someone had turned their choice of music entertainment up to a scream. The nasty sound of it echoed down the staircase and deafened the ears on the first-floor landing. Still, it was better than the sounds of huffing and puffing they heard through one of the thin doors on the second floor. Some lucky LC was earning her fee, Eve imagined as she headed up.

  "I guess we can deduce that soundproofing isn't one of the amenities of this charming little unit," Peabody commented.

  "I doubt the tenants give a damn." Eve stopped in front of 4C, knocked. Street hookers worked twenty-four / seven, but usually in shifts. She thought someone would be around, and unemployed.

  "I'm not working till sundown," came the response. "So blow off."

  In answer, Eve held her badge up to the security peep. "Police. I want to talk to you."

  "My license is up to date. You can't hassle me."

  "Open the door, or you'll see just how fast I can hassle you."

  There was a mutter, curse, the rattle of locks. The door opened a slit and a single bloodshot brown eye peered out. "What? I'm not on for hours, and I'm trying to get some sleep here."

  From the look in that single eye, she'd been getting that sleep with a little chemical aid. "How long have you lived in this apartment?"

  "A few weeks. So the fuck what?"

  "Before that?"

  "Across the hall. Look, I got my license, my health checks. I'm solid."

  "Were you one of Spindler's?"

  "Yeah." The door opened another fraction. The other eye and a hard mouth appeared. "So the fuck what?"

  "You got a name?"

  "Mandy. So the—"

  "Yeah, I got that part. Open up, Mandy, I need to ask you some questions about your former boss."

  "She's dead. Been dead. Those're the only answers I got." But she opened the door. Her hair was short and spiked. Easier, Eve imagined, for her to don one of the many wigs street LCs liked to play with. She was probably no more than thirty, but looked ten years older if you went by the face.

  Whatever profit Mandy made obviously went into her body, which was lush and curved, with huge, uptilted breasts that strained against the thin material of a dingy pink robe.

  It was, Eve decided, the right investment for a woman in her field. Johns rarely looked at the face.

  Eve stepped inside and noted that the living area had been converted so that it accommodated both ends of the business. A curtain was drawn down the center, cutting the room in two. In one half were two beds on casters with rates and services clearly posted on a board between them.

  The other half held a computer, a tele-link system, and a single chair.

  "Did you take over Spindler's business?"

  "Four of us got together to do it. We figured, hell, somebody's got to run the stables, and if it's us, we can cut back on street time." She smiled a little. "Be like, executives. Trolling for Johns in the winter's murder."

  "I just bet. Were you around the night Spindler was killed?"

  "I figure I was around—in and out, you know, depending. I remember business was pretty good." She took the single chair, stretched out her legs. "Wasn't so freaking cold."

  "You got your book handy?"

  Mandy's eyes went sulky. "You got no need to poke into my books. I'm being straight."

n tell me what you know, where you were. You remember," Eve said before Mandy could deny it. "Even in this kind of flop, you don't get your boss carved open on a nightly basis."

  "Sure I remember." She jerked a shoulder. "I was catching a break when Lida found her and went nutso. Jesus, she screamed like a virgin, you know? Came screaming and crying and beating on my door. Said how the old bitch was dead and there was blood, so I told her to shut the fuck up and call the cops if she wanted to. I went back to bed."

  "You didn't come in and check it out for yourself?"

  "What for? If she was dead, fine and dandy. If she wasn't, who cares?"

  "How long did you work for her?"

  "Six years." Mandy yawned hugely. "Now I work for me."

  "You didn't like her."

  "I hated her guts. Look, like I said to the other cop, to know her was to hate her. I didn't see anything, didn't hear anything, and I wouldn't have cared if I did."

  "What cop did you talk to?"

  "One of her kind." She jerked up her chin in Peabody's direction. "Then one of your kind. They didn't make a big deal out of it. Why should you?"

  "You don't know my kind, Mandy. But I know yours." She stepped closer, leaned down. "Woman runs a stable, she keeps some cash around. She deals in cash, and she doesn't run out at night to make a deposit until the shift's over. She was dead before that, and I don't see anything on the report about any cash being found in this place."

  Mandy crossed her legs. "So, one of the cops helped himself. So the fuck what?"

  "I think a cop's going to be smart enough not to take the whole stash. I don't think there was anything to take once they got here. Now, you either play straight with me, or I'll take you and your book into interview and sweat it out of you. I don't give a damn if you took her stash, but I can care about what happened in here that night."

  She waited a beat to make sure Mandy caught the full drift. "To review: Your pal came screaming to your door and told you what was up in here. Now, we both know you didn't turn around and go back to bed. So let's try that part again."

  Mandy studied Eve's face, measured. A woman in her profession who intended to survive until retirement learned to read faces and attitudes. This cop, she decided, would push until she got her answers. "Somebody was going to take the money, so I did. Lida and I split it. Who cares?"

  "You went in and looked at her."

  "I made sure she was dead. Didn't have to go past the bedroom door for that. Not with the blood and the smell."

  "Okay, now tell me about the night before. You said you were in and out, busy night. You know the kind of Johns that use this place. Did you see anybody who didn't fit?"

  "Look, I'm not getting tangled up in some cop shit over that old bitch."

  "You want to stay untangled, you tell me who and what you saw. Otherwise, you become a material witness, one who may have compromised the crime scene." A new and nastier drift, Eve mused, another pause to let it sink in thoroughly. "I can get an order for a truth test out of that, and some time for you in holding."

  "Goddamn it." Mandy pushed out of the chair, walked over to a minifridge, and found a beer. "Look, I was busy, working my ass off. Maybe I saw a couple guys who looked out of place coming out of the building when I was bringing a John in. I just thought, Fuck it, I got this half-wit to get off, and one of the other girls got these two dudes who looked like they had money enough to tip just fine."

  "What did they look like?"

  "Expensive coats. They were each carrying something, like bags. I figured they brought their own sex toys."

  "Men? You're certain you saw two men?"

  "Two of them." Her lips pursed briefly before she took another slug of beer. "I figured them for men, but I didn't get a good look because the half-wit was already drooling on me."

  Eve nodded, sat on the corner of the desk. "Okay, Mandy, let's see if talking all this over again improves your memory."

  *** CHAPTER NINE ***

  Normally, Eve approached splashy social events like medicine. She avoided them whenever possible—which wasn't often enough now that she was married to Roarke— and when she couldn't wiggle out, she gritted her teeth, swallowed fast and hard, and tried to ignore the bad taste in her mouth.

  But she was looking forward to the fundraiser for the Drake Center.

  This time, she approached the event like a job.

  But she was going to miss the comforting weight of her weapon. There was no place to conceal it in the dress she wore. It had seemed appropriate to wear one of Leonardo's designs, as he would be one of the couturiers spotlighted in the fashion show.

  She'd had a lot to choose from. Since Leonardo had come into Mavis's life—and therefore Eve's—her wardrobe had expanded dramatically from jeans, trousers, shirts, and one boxy gray suit to include what she considered enough fancy clothes to outfit a theater troupe.

  She'd picked the dress out of the closet at random, because she liked the dark copper tone of it. A long, smooth column, it fell straight from its off-the-shoulder neckline to her ankles, which made her consider strapping her clutch piece to her calf.

  In the end, she stuck it and her shield in the little evening bag she carried. Just, she told herself, in case.

  Weapons seemed out of place in the glitter of the ballroom, in the sweeping sparkle of beautiful people dressed in shimmering clothes and draped with glinting gold and flashing stones. The air was rich with the fragrances of hothouse flowers, of perfumed flesh and hair. And music, a low, elegant throb, played discreetly.

  Champagne and other fashionable, exotic drinks were served in crystal glasses by waiters in distinguished black uniforms. Conversation was a sophisticated murmur, punctuated by an occasionally muted laugh.

  To Eve's eye, nothing could have looked more contrived, more staged, or more tedious. She was about to say just that to Roarke when there was a delighted squeal, a flurry of color and movement, and the sharp sound of crystal shattering on the floor.

  Mavis Freestone waved a jubilant hand that was studded with rings on every ringer, offered a giggling apology to the waiter she'd bumped, and dashed across the ballroom through the perfectly poised crowd on five-inch silver heels designed to show off toenails painted a blistering blue.

  "Dallas!" She squealed again and all but launched herself into Eve's arms. "This is so mag! I didn't think you'd show. Wait till Leonardo sees you. He's back in the dressing area having a real case of nerves. I told him to take a chill pill or something or I swear he's just going to woof all over somebody. Hey, Roarke!"

  Before Eve could speak, Mavis had leaped over to hug Roarke. "Man, do you two look frigid! Have you had a drink yet? The tornadoes are killers. I've had three."

  "They seem to agree with you." Roarke couldn't help but grin. She was small as a fairy, lark happy, and well on her way to being completely drunk.

  "Yeah, you bet. I've got some Sober-Up with me so I can maintain while Leonardo's designs hit the ramp. But for now…"

  She started to snag another glass from a passing waiter, nearly teetered over. Eve simply slid an arm around her shoulders. "For now, let's check out the eats."

  They made an interesting picture: Roarke, sexy and elegant in suave black tie; Eve, long and lanky in her copper column; and Mavis, in a silver dress that looked wet to the touch and faded into transparency a wink below her crotch, while a temporary tattoo of a grinning lizard slithered up her right thigh. Her hair spilled over her shoulder and was dyed the same eye-popping blue as her nails.

  "We get real food after the show," Mavis commented, but popped a canape into her mouth.

  "Why wait?" Amused by the brilliant shine in Mavis's eyes, Eve nonetheless piled a plate with finger food, then held it while her friend plowed through.

  "Man, this stuff rocks." She swallowed. "What is it?"


  With a snorting laugh, Mavis pressed a hand to her stomach. "I better watch it or I'll be the one woofing. I guess I'll take my Sober-Up and go back
to see if I can hold Leonardo's hand. He gets so wired up before a show. Really glad you guys are here. Most of these people are, you know…drags."

  "You get to go back and hang with Leonardo," Eve said. "I have to stay out here and talk to the drags."

  "We'll sit together at dinner, okay? And make fun of them. I mean, some of these outfits!" With a shake of her blue hair, she scampered off.

  "We're releasing her recording and video later this month," Roarke told Eve. "What is the world going to make of Mavis Freestone?"

  "They won't be able to resist her." Smiling now, she looked up at Roarke. "So, introduce me to some of the drags. I'm hoping to make somebody very nervous tonight."

  Eve didn't think of the tedium now. Every new face she met was a potential suspect. Some smiled, some nodded, some lifted eyebrows when they learned she was a homicide cop.

  She spotted Dr. Mira, Cagney, and with some surprise, Louise Dimatto. She'd save them for later, Eve decided, and held out her hand to formalize her introduction to Dr. Tia Wo.

  "I've heard of you, Lieutenant."


  "Yes, I never miss the local news. You've been featured quite a bit the last year or so— through your own exploits and your connection with Roarke."

  Her voice was gravel rough but not unpleasant. She looked both stark and dignified in basic black. She wore no jewelry but for a small, gold pin, the ancient medical symbol of two snakes wound around a staff topped by wings.

  "I never thought about police work being exploits."

  Wo smiled, a kind of quick reflex that curved the lips up for a brief instant, left the eyes unwarmed, then settled down again. "No offense meant. I often consider the news the highest form of entertainment. More than books or videos, it shows people in their genuine form, reciting their own lines. And I'm quite fascinated with crime."

  "Me, too." As openings went, it was perfect. "I have one you'd find interesting. I'm investigating a series of murders. The victims are sidewalk sleepers, addicts, street LCs."

  "It's an unfortunate life for them."

  "An unfortunate death for some. Each of these victims had an organ surgically removed. Quite skillfully removed, stolen from the unwilling donor."

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