Naked in death, p.14
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       Naked in Death, p.14

         Part #1 of In Death series by J. D. Robb  
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  She let out a short breath. “Yes.”

  “Now’s your chance.”

  The gates opened. He drove through.

  chapter ten

  The same stone-faced butler stood guard at the door. He took Eve’s coat with the same faint disapproval.

  “Send coffee down to the target room, please,” Roarke ordered as he led Eve up the stairs.

  He was holding her hand again, but Eve decided it was less a sentimental gesture than one to make sure she didn’t balk. She could have told him she was much too intrigued to go anywhere, but found she enjoyed that ripple of annoyance under his smooth manner.

  When they’d reached the third floor, he went through his collection briskly, choosing weapons without fuss or hesitation. He handled the antiques with the competence of experience and, she thought, habitual use.

  Not a man who simply bought to own, but one who made use of his possessions. She wondered if he knew that counted against him. Or if he cared.

  Once his choices were secured in a leather case, he moved to a wall.

  Both the security console and the door itself were so cleverly hidden in a painting of a forest, she would never have found it. The trompe l’oeil slid open to an elevator.

  “This car only opens to a select number of rooms,” he explained as Eve stepped into the elevator with him. “I rarely take guests down to the target area.”

  “Why?”

  “My collection, and the use of it, are reserved for those who can appreciate it.”

  “How much do you buy through the black market?”

  “Always a cop.” He flashed that grin at her, and she was sure, tucked his tongue in his cheek. “I buy only through legal sources, naturally.” His eyes skimmed down to her shoulder bag. “As long as you’ve got your recorder on.”

  She couldn’t help but smile back. Of course she had her recorder on. And of course he knew it. It was a measure of her interest that she opened the bag, took out her recorder, and manually disengaged.

  “And your backup?” he said smoothly.

  “You’re too smart for your own good.” Willing to take the chance, she slipped a hand into her pocket. The backup unit was nearly paper thin. She used a thumbnail to deactivate it. “What about yours?” She glanced around the elevator as the doors opened. “You’d have video and audio security in every corner of this place.”

  “Of course.” He took her hand again and drew her out of the car.

  The room was high ceilinged, surprisingly spartan given Roarke’s love of comfort. The lights switched on the moment they stepped in, illuminating plain, sand colored walls, a bank of simple high-backed chairs, and tables where a tray holding a silver coffeepot and china cups had already been set.

  Ignoring them, Eve walked over to a long, glossy black console. “What does it do?”

  “A number of things.” Roarke set the case he carried down on a flat area. He pressed his palm to an identiscreen. There was a soft green glow beneath it as his print was read and accepted, then lights and dials glowed on.

  “I keep a supply of ammunition here.” He pressed a series of buttons. A cabinet in the base of the console slid open. “You’ll want these.” From a second cabinet, he took earplugs and safety glasses.

  “This is, what, like a hobby?” Eve asked as she adjusted the glasses. The small, clear lenses cupped her eyes, the attached earplugs fit snugly.

  “Yes. Like a hobby.”

  His voice came with a faint echo through her ear protectors, linking them, closing out the rest. He chose the .38, loaded it.

  “This was standard police issue in the mid-twentieth century. Toward the second millennium, nine millimeters were preferred.”

  “The RS-fifties were the official weapon of choice during the Urban Revolt and into the third decade of the twenty-first century.”

  He lifted a brow, pleased. “You’ve been doing your homework.”

  “Damn right.” She glanced at the weapon in his hand. “Into the mind of a killer.”

  “Then you’d be aware that the hand laser you have strapped to your side didn’t gain popular acceptance until about twenty-five years ago.”

  She watched with a slight frown as he slapped the cylinder shut. “The NS laser, with modifications, has been standard police issue since 2023. I didn’t notice any lasers in your collection.”

  His eyes met hers, and there was a laugh in them. “Cop toys only. They’re illegal, lieutenant, even for collectors.” He pressed a button. Against the far wall a hologram flashed, so lifelike that Eve blinked and braced before she caught herself.

  “Excellent image,” she murmured, studying the big, bull-shouldered man holding a weapon she couldn’t quite identify.

  “He’s a replica of a typical twentieth-century thug. That’s an AK-forty-seven he’s holding.”

  “Right.” She narrowed her eyes at it. It was more dramatic than in the photos and videos she’d studied. “Very popular with urban gangs and drug dealers of the era.”

  “An assault weapon,” Roarke murmured. “Fashioned to kill. Once I activate, if he hits target, you’d feel a slight jolt. Low level electrical shock, rather than the much more dramatic insult of a bullet. Want to try it?”

  “You go first.”

  “Fine.” Roarke activated. The hologram lunged forward, swinging up his weapon. The sound effects kicked in instantly.

  The thunder of noise had Eve jerking back a step. Snarled obscenities, street sounds, the terrifyingly rapid explosion of gunfire.

  She watched, slack jawed, as the image spurted what looked entirely too much like blood. The wide chest seemed to erupt with it as the man flew back. The weapon spiraled out of his hand. Then both vanished.

  “Jesus.”

  A little surprised that he’d been showing off, like a kid at an arcade, Roarke lowered his weapon. “It hardly makes the point of what something like this can do to flesh and bone if the image isn’t realistic.”

  “Guess not.” She had to swallow. “Did he hit you?”

  “Not that time. Of course, one on one, and when you can fully anticipate your opponent, doesn’t make it very difficult to win your round.”

  Roarke pushed more buttons, and the dead gunman was back, whole and ready to rock. Roarke took his stance with the ease and automation, Eve thought, of a veteran cop. Or, to borrow his word, a thug.

  Abruptly, the image lunged, and as Roarke fired, other holograms appeared in rapid succession. A man with some sort of wicked looking handgun, a snarling woman aiming a long barreled weapon—a .44 Magnum, Eve decided—a small, terrified child carrying a ball.

  They flashed and fired, cursed, screamed, bled. When it was over, the child was sitting on the ground weeping, all alone.

  “A random choice like that’s more difficult,” Roarke told her. “Caught my shoulder.”

  “What?” Eve blinked, focused on him again. “Your shoulder.”

  He grinned at her. “Don’t worry, darling. It’s just a flesh wound.”

  Her heart was thudding in her ears, no matter how ridiculous she told herself was her reaction. “Hell of a toy, Roarke. Real fun and games time. Do you play often?”

  “Now and again. Ready to try it?”

  If she could handle a session with VR, Eve decided, she could handle this. “Yeah, run another random pattern.”

  “That’s what I admire about you, lieutenant.” Roarke selected ammo, loaded fresh. “You jump right in. Let’s try a dry run first.”

  He brought up a simple target, circles and a bull’s-eye. He stepped behind her, putting the .38 in her hands, his over them. He pressed his cheek to hers. “You have to sight it, as it doesn’t sense heat and movement as your weapon does.” He adjusted her arms until he was satisfied. “When you’re ready to fire, you want to squeeze the trigger, not pump it. It’s going to jerk a bit. It’s not as smooth or as silent as your laser.”

  “I’ve got that,” she muttered. It was foolish to be susceptible to his hands over hers, the press of his body, the smell of him. “You’re crowding me.”

  He turned his head, just enough to have his lips brushing up to her earlobe. It was innocently unpierced, rather sweet, like a child’s.

  “I know. You need to brace yourself more than you’re used to. Your reaction will be to flinch. Don’t.”

  “I don’t flinch.” To prove it, she squeezed the trigger. Her arms jerked, annoying her. She shot again, and a third time, missing the heart of the target by less than an inch. “Christ, you feel it, don’t you?” She rolled her shoulders, fascinated by the way they sang in response to the weapon in her hands.

  “It makes it more personal. You’ve got a good eye.” He was impressed, but his tone was mild. “Of course, it’s one thing to shoot at a circle, another to shoot at a body. Even a reproduction.”

  A challenge? she noted. Well, she was up for it. “How many more shots in this?”

  “We’ll reload it full.” He programmed in a series. Curiosity and, he had to admit, ego had him choosing a tough one. “Ready?”

  She flicked a glance at him, adjusted her stance. “Yeah.”

  The first image was an elderly woman clutching a shopping bag with both hands. Eve nearly took the bystander’s head off before her finger froze. A movement flickered to the left, and she shot a mugger before he could bring an iron pipe down on the old woman. A slight sting in her left hip had her shifting again, and taking out a bald man with a weapon similar to her own.

  They came fast and hard after that.

  Roarke watched her, mesmerized. No, she didn’t flinch, he mused. Her eyes stayed flat and cool. Cop’s eyes. He knew her adrenaline was up, her pulse hammering. Her movements were quick but as smooth and studied as a dance. Her jaw was set, her hands steady.

  And he wanted her, he realized as his gut churned. Quite desperately he wanted her.

  “Caught me twice,” she said almost to herself. She opened the chamber herself, reloaded as she’d seen Roarke do. “Once in the hip, once in the abdomen. That makes me dead or in dire straits. Run another.”

  He obliged her, then tucked his hands in his pockets and watched her work.

  When she was done, she asked to try the Swiss model. She found she preferred the weight and the response of it. Definitely an advantage over a revolver, she reflected. Quicker, more responsive, better fire power, and a reload took seconds.

  Neither weapon fit as comfortably in her hand as her laser, yet she found both primitively and horribly efficient.

  And the damage they caused, the torn flesh, the flying blood, turned death into a gruesome affair.

  “Any hits?” Roarke asked.

  Though the images were gone, she stared at the wall, and the afterimages that played in her mind. “No. I’m clean. What they do to a body,” she said softly, and put the weapon down. “To have used these—to have faced having to use them day after day, and know going in they could be used against you. Who could face that,” she wondered, “without going a little insane?”

  “You could.” He removed his eye and ear protectors. “Conscience and dedication to duty don’t have to equal any kind of weakness. You got through Testing. It cost you, but you got through it.”

  Carefully, she set her protectors beside his. “How do you know?”

  “How do I know you were in Testing today? I have contacts. How do I know it cost you?” He cupped her chin. “I can see it,” he said softly. “Your heart wars with your head. I don’t think you realize that’s what makes you so good at your job. Or so fascinating to me.”

  “I’m not trying to fascinate you. I’m trying to find a man who used those weapons I just fired; not for defense, but for pleasure.” She looked straight into his eyes. “It isn’t you.”

  “No, it isn’t me.”

  “But you know something.”

  He brushed the pad of his thumb over, into the dip in her chin before dropping his hand. “I’m not at all sure that I do.” He crossed over to the table, poured coffee. “Twentieth-century weapons, twentieth-century crimes, with twentieth-century motives?” He flicked a glance at her. “That would be my take.”

  “It’s a simple enough deduction.”

  “But tell me, lieutenant, can you play deductive games in history, or are you too firmly entrenched in the now?”

  She’d wondered the same herself, and she was learning. “I’m flexible.”

  “No, but you’re smart. Whoever killed Sharon had a knowledge, even an affection, perhaps an obsession with the past.” His brow lifted mockingly. “I do have a knowledge of certain pieces of the past, and undoubtedly an affection for them. Obsession?” He lifted a careless shoulder. “You’d have to judge for yourself.”

  “I’m working on it.”

  “I’m sure you are. Let’s take a page out of old-fashioned deductive reasoning, no computers, no technical analysis. Study the victim first. You believe Sharon was a blackmailer. And it fits. She was an angry woman, a defiant one who needed power. And wanted to be loved.”

  “You figured all that out after seeing her twice?”

  “From that.” He offered the coffee to her. “And from talking to people who knew her. Friends and associates found her a stunning, energetic woman, yet a secretive one. A woman who dismissed her family, yet thought of them often. One who loved to live, yet one who brooded regularly. I imagine we’ve covered much of the same ground.”

  Irritation jumped in. “I wasn’t aware you were covering any ground, Roarke, in a police investigation.”

  “Beth and Richard are my friends. I take my friendships seriously. They’re grieving, Eve. And I don’t like knowing Beth is blaming herself.”

  She remembered the haunted eyes and nerves. She sighed. “All right, I can accept that. Who have you talked to?”

  “Friends, as I said, acquaintances, business associates.” He set his coffee aside as Eve sipped hers and paced. “Odd, isn’t it, how many different opinions and perceptions you find on one woman. Ask this one, and you’ll hear Sharon was loyal, generous. Ask another and she was vindictive, calculating. Still another saw her as a party addict who could never find enough excitement, while the next tells you she enjoyed quiet evenings on her own. Quite a role player, our Sharon.”

  “She wore different faces for different people. It’s common enough.”

  “Which face, or which role, killed her?” Roarke took out a cigarette, lighted it. “Blackmail.” Thoughtfully he blew out a fragrant stream of smoke. “She would have been good at it. She liked to dig into people and could dispense considerable charm while doing it.”

  “And she dispensed it on you.”

  “Lavishly.” That careless smile flashed again. “I wasn’t prepared to exchange information for sex. Even if she hadn’t been my friend’s daughter and a professional, she wouldn’t have appealed to me in that way. I prefer a different type.” His eyes rested on Eve’s again, broodingly. “Or thought I did. I haven’t yet figured out why the intense, driven, and prickly type appeals to me so unexpectedly.”

  She poured more coffee, looked at him over the rim. “That isn’t flattering.”

  “It wasn’t meant to be. Though for someone who must have a very poor-sighted hairdresser and doesn’t choose the standard enhancements, you are surprisingly easy to look at.”

  “I don’t have a hairdresser, or time for enhancements.” Or, she decided, the inclination to discuss them. “To continue the deduction. If Sharon DeBlass was murdered by one of her blackmail victims, where does Lola Starr come in?”

  “A problem, isn’t it?” Roarke took a contemplative drag. “They don’t appear to have anything in common other than their choice of profession. It’s doubtful they knew each other or shared the same taste in clients. Yet there was one who, at least briefly, knew them both.”

  “One who chose them both.”

  Roarke lifted a brow, nodded. “You put it better.”

  “What did you mean when you said I didn’t know what I was getting into?”

  His hesitation was so brief, so smoothly covered, it was barely noticeable. “I’m not sure if you understand the power DeBlass has or can use. The scandal of his granddaughter’s murder could add to it. He wants the presidency, and he wants to dictate the mood and moral choices of the country and beyond.”

  “You’re saying he could use Sharon’s death politically? How?”

  Roarke stubbed his cigarette out. “He could paint his granddaughter as a victim of society, with sex for profit as the murder weapon. How can a world that allows legalized prostitution, full conception control, sexual adjustment, and so forth not take responsibility for the results?”

  Eve could appreciate the debate, but shook her head. “DeBlass also wants to eliminate the gun ban. She was shot by a weapon not really available under current law.”

  “Which makes it more insidious. Would she have been able to defend herself if she, too, had been armed?” When Eve started to disagree, he shook his head. “It hardly matters what the answer is, only the question itself. Have we forgotten our founders and the basic tenets of their blueprint for the country? Our right to bear arms. A woman murdered in her own home, her own bed, a victim of sexual freedom and defenselessness. More, yes, much more, of moral decline.”

  He strolled over to disengage the console. “Oh, you’ll argue that murder by handgun was the rule rather than the exception when anyone with the desire and the finances could purchase one, but he’ll drown that out. The Conservative Party is gaining ground, and he’s the spearhead.”

  He watched her assimilate as she poured yet more coffee. “Has it occurred to you that he might not want the murderer caught?”

  Off guard, she looked up. “Why wouldn’t he? Over and above the personal, wouldn’t that give him even more ammunition? ‘Here’s the low-life, immoral scum that murdered my poor, misguided granddaughter.’ ”

  “That’s a risk, isn’t it? Perhaps the murderer is a fine, upstanding pillar of his community who was equally misguided. But a scapegoat is certainly required.”

  He waited a moment, watching her think it through. “Who do you think made certain you went to Testing in the middle of this case? Who’s watching every step you take, monitoring every stage of your investigation? Who’d digging into your background, your personal life as well as your professional one?”

 
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admin 22 September 2018 10:45
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