Dark in death, p.21
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       Dark in Death, p.21

         Part #46 of In Death series by J. D. Robb
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  “Did you talk to her, go up to her?”

  “No, I just sketched the tat. Only got a quick look, it seems to me. Any hot club’s going to be jammed and canned. It could’ve been Styx. I mostly stick with those four, unless I hear there’s going to be action somewhere else.”

  “You’re an artist,” Eve began.

  “An Op-X-Artist.”

  “Whatever, you notice details, faces, body types.”

  “I look at the overview, see? Maybe you zoom in on something—like the tat—but mostly it’s the blur and whirl, and you fill in the details from your mind, your guts.”

  “Maybe you zoomed in on her around here, in the neighborhood, on the street.”

  “The neighborhood’s a false front.” Dismissing it, Yola flicked a hand at the window. “I need something, I get it delivered. I got no reason to go out there until the sun’s down. That’s when the real world starts to live. I saw the tat. Orange tat, white skin. That’s it.”

  “Stay out of the clubs for a few weeks.”

  “I tell you, I wouldn’t drink her sick-ass pomtini.”

  “She could find another way. Stay clean, stay away from the clubs, stay alive.”

  Eve turned toward the door, stopped. “You got a mother?”

  “Sure I’ve got a mother. What the fuck?”

  “Where’s she stand with you?”

  “My mom? Well, she was smart enough to tell me the Stoner was wrong, but hell, why would I listen? We’ve gone at it plenty, but she’s proud I’ve got my four months in. Tags me every damn day. She doesn’t give up.”

  “In the book, the dead woman had a mother who didn’t give up. Be smart, Yola. Stay out of the clubs.”

  “Do you think she will?” Peabody asked as they walked downstairs.

  “She’s clean. She may stay clean, may not, but she’s clean now, so her brain’s clear enough to let her think twice. It all depends on where she ends up after she thinks twice.”

  “I’m going to have nightmares for sure now, with all those paintings. She’s good enough to make them really, really disturbing.”

  “Death’s the ultimate experience.” Hissing out a breath, Eve walked back into the bitter rain. “What makes some people so damn interested in death?”

  “Well, we are.”

  Eve frowned as she walked. “You’ve got a point. Look up the clubs she listed. See if any of them are open, or if you can tag a manager, an owner.”

  They hit two clubs, three more skanks, one club manager, and two bartenders. They didn’t get a nibble until the second bartender.

  Brad Smithers tended bar at Screw U to finance his pursuit of his masters in political science. Twenty-three, buff, and black, he earned extra pay taking deliveries, stocking the shelves, and doing setups three afternoons a week.

  “Plus it’s a quiet space until about five and the crew starts rolling in. We open at five-thirty for the happy hour crowd, but things don’t start hopping till after nine, and don’t really heat up until more like eleven most nights.

  “Hey, how about I fix you guys a fancy coffee? It’s nasty out there.”

  “Black works,” Eve said, but he winced.

  “You want to trust me here, you don’t want the java straight, not what we’ve got. But it works fine as a base when I fancy it up.”

  “I wouldn’t mind it,” Peabody said. “It is nasty out there.”

  “I like to talk while I work anyway.” He went behind the long, stylized U of the bar, began to program an AutoChef.

  The lights, on full now, consisted of trios of screws with tips that appeared lethal should they fall and impale a customer.

  The walls carried a dull shine and numerous photos of naked or mostly naked people in creative poses of debauchery. Booths and tables crowded in together, some with privacy domes, some with filmy curtains. The dance floor spread, another dull sheen in front of a currently empty stage.

  Stairs corkscrewed up to the open second level where Eve could see some lounging sofas, sleep chairs, and doors to what would be the privacy rooms.

  “Place shows better at night,” he commented as he took some bottles from under the bar, began to doctor up the coffee. “For what it is. The lights start pumping, music starts grinding. We get some colorful characters, and they’re part of the show.”

  Eve laid the photo on the bar. “Is she one of the colorful?”

  He glanced at it while he sprinkled something onto the thin froth topping the coffee. “Going by the outfit, as that’s about all you can go by, that’s not the sort who patronizes this establishment.” He smiled when he said it. “You might see her wander in during happy hour, look lost, and head out again.”

  He set the coffee on coasters sporting a drawing of a screw and a large U.

  Eve rattled off names of the women on her list.

  “Those are the sort who patronize this establishment. Shanna was in last night. Yola earlier in the week. You never know when the Flash is going to show. Pops in and out or settles in and closes the place down. Are they in trouble?”

  “Maybe. How about a woman, more thirties or even forties, white, red hair, blue side dreads, orange—”

  “Dragon tat,” he finished.

  “You’ve seen her.”

  “Sits at the end of the bar.” He wagged his finger toward the other end of the bar. “Drinks … wait, I’ve got it.” He shut his eyes, hummed a moment. “Virgin Moscow Mule. She makes one last.”

  “The women I named? Does she interact with any of them?”

  “I don’t think she interacts much. Sits alone. I tried chatting her up once, like you do. She told me to fuck off. I fucked off. Now she sits at the other end of the bar, so I figure she’s not here to chat.”

  “How often does she come in?”

  “Like I said, I’ve seen her a few times, and she might come in on my nights off. I wouldn’t even call her a semi-regular, but often enough I remember the hair, the tat.”

  “Describe her otherwise.”

  “Hell. I’d know her if she walked in, but … A white girl, like you said. Maybe on the thin side? A lot of skin showing, a lot of face paint. That’s like a uniform in here.”

  “She blends.”

  “Yeah. Except most come in to hang out, to get trashed, to dance, to hook up. She sits by herself, so that stands out. It’s why I got her when you started asking.”

  “Would you work with a police artist?”

  “Ah, sure, but I don’t really have a picture in my head.”

  “You’d be surprised. Peabody, get Yancy on this.”

  “Got it. Can I just say, this is seriously mag coffee. Those touches of caramel and vanilla.”

  He smiled, wide and pleased. “Glad you like it. I did the barista thing as an undergrad. Tips here are way better.”

  “Brad—and it is good coffee—if you see her in here, contact me. If she’s in here and any of the women I named are in here, see if you can move them to a private space.”

  “A lot of times they’re here at the same time. Especially if we’ve got a headliner playing, you’ll see most if not all of the regular rock chicks come in to hang.”

  “Move them if you can. If the redhead orders a pomtini, stall.”

  Deep, dark eyes showed worry now, and a few nerves. “You think she’s going to hurt one of them? Which one?”

  “It’d be easier if I knew. She’s dangerous. Don’t confront her, tag me and pull in whatever security you’ve got. Are they any good?”

  “I guess. They handle shit when shit comes down.”

  “Let them handle her. I’m going to talk to your manager about passing the word on her, but you pass it to the other bartenders and waitstaff.”

  “Yancy can be here in about an hour,” Peabody announced.

  “We’re going to be open by then. I’m supposed to—”

  “This is important,” Eve told him. “She’s already killed two people.”

  “Holy fuck.” He rubbed a hand over his hair. “Ho
ly fuck. I’ll make it work.”

  “I’m going to clear it with your manager. What do you do if she comes in?”

  “Tag you, get security, try to move any of the rock chicks in here to … the kitchen’s back there. The kitchen would be good, right?”

  “It would.”

  “And stall if she orders a pomtini—tell the rest of the crew. Don’t fucking panic.”

  “You’ve got it.”

  Eve worked her way back to Central through the bitter insistence of the rain. She updated board, book, notes, pushed through some standard paperwork.

  Then sat, coffee in hand, boots on desk.

  Which one, she wondered. Which one of the women she’d spent a big chunk of her day talking to was the target? All of them fit the basic outline of the book’s victim.

  “How do you pick, Strongbow? Or does it even matter? Is this opportunity mixed in? Who’s available when it’s time to make your move?”

  No, she thought, and got up to pace. That didn’t fit the pathology. It would be more specific.

  “She weeded it down, weeded all but one or two out. And one—maybe two—through the culling, the research, the opportunity, becomes Bliss Cather. One of them has to die.”

  They’d caught a break with the bartender, but it was a damn sure bet she’d trolled other clubs. Watching, observing the one or two she’d picked out.

  Eve went back to the board, studied the faces of the women Brad called rocker chicks. It wasn’t looks, she thought, not when they were all so much of a type.

  Behavior? They all lived on the edge, all actively pursued and embraced the same sort of lifestyle. Illegals, booze, indiscriminate sex, no healthy friendships or relationships, no actual jobs. Lives lived at night, reflected celebrity.

  So what …

  She stopped.

  “The ex. It’s the ex. He’s the determining factor. To kill she has to love. Who does she love?”

  She dived back to her desk, called up the names of the lovers, ex-lovers.

  Which one? Which one most closely matched the one in the book?

  On the first pass, she dropped two names down to low probability. One was firmly hooked with an actress and spending a lot of time in New L.A., the other on tour in Europe.

  You had to see what you loved, Eve thought.

  She studied the others, found them much the same, like their female counterparts.

  She needed the book again, she decided. Something might pop for her—just as it had for Strongbow.

  She grabbed her things, stopped by Peabody’s desk on the way out.

  “I’m working from home—you can do the same. You’ve got a copy of Dark Deeds?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Go through it, make notes on the ex—on the motive. What is it about him? Compare with the list we have from the women we’ve talked to. Something had to click with Strongbow. Something about him. Let’s find it.”

  “Not the victim, the motive. I’ll start on it here, take it home when McNab gets off. I’ve got the audio function. You know, I’ll program it for his scenes, listen to it. Listening might make something jump.”

  “Try it. She fell in love with one of them. That’s her reality now, especially now that she’s living in that book. The others are over. It’s time for Dark Deeds.”

  15

  Little pellets of ice pinged on the windshield as Eve pushed through skittish, sliding, angry traffic. She spotted a couple of pedestrians with tiny icicles dripping from umbrellas and decided as bad as it was, at least she was traveling in a heated car.

  Stopped at a light, she watched a pair of beat cops in pursuit of some guy—early twenties, mixed race, flapping brown overcoat—who loped like a gazelle down the sidewalk.

  Until he hit a slick spot, went airborne. His feet flew up, his ass crashed down. Before he could scramble up again, the beat boys had him.

  Score one for Team Blue, she thought as the light changed.

  Once she drove through the gates, she could appreciate the fanfare of icicles shimmering on the bare branches of trees, enclosing the shrubbery in glitter and gleam, all forming a fairy-tale foreground for the stone, the towers, the turrets, the glass all spreading and rising under that angry bruise of a sky.

  She appreciated more actually getting in the house without falling on her own ass. The cat rose from his perch at the base of the steps, stretched from head to tail, then padded over to wind and snake between her legs like a well-fed boa constrictor.

  “Did I beat him home again?” She tossed her coat, hat, and scarf over the newel post, crouched down to give Galahad a scratch and rub.

  “Straight to work mode, pal.”

  With the cat trailing her, she walked to the library first. She considered the appeal of sitting on the sofa, feet up, fire going, then accepted she’d work faster in her office.

  She took a stack of books, hauled them with her.

  After setting them on her command center, she updated her board. Then she expanded it, used the new section for ID shots of what she termed “Motive—Dark Deeds.”

  As the ice pinged and sizzled against the windows, she ordered the fire on, programmed a pot of coffee.

  She settled in, read an early scene between the future victim and the motive, made notes.

  Public fight, club/crime scene. Victim trashed/motive half-trashed. Ugly words, threats on both sides. Public fight reported on gossip channels, with video.

  She searched the real rockers’ gossip history. Rubbed her eyes when she found every single one had a reflective incident.

  She moved to the murder scene, also early in the book. Same club, different night, but many of the same characters.

  Victim trashed again, and bad-mouthing motive, who sits in another section pretending to ignore her. Victim hits the dance floor—so does motive. Victim rubs suggestively against several available men—and a couple women—all while watching motive. Victim and motive dance, simulating sex. Victim goes back to her table, pops a little Erotica, brags that she’ll have motive up in a privacy room, how she can lead him by the cock wherever she wants him.

  Lots of bodies, lots of noise, flashing lights, pounding music. Victim picks up the fresh, blood-hued martini, takes a couple of big gulps. Continues to brag—lots of laughing from her little group of sycophants.

  Trouble breathing, drinks more. Gales of laughter as victim starts to lose consciousness. Screams and scrambling when she vomits. Motive tries to push through crowd to get to victim. Seizures, skin turns cherry-red.

  Chaos, confusion. One figure back in the shadows observes, then slips out of the club and away.

  Will the killer—in real life—need to find a way to have the motive present?

  Eve went back to her list, checked residency, band schedule. She found four slated to be in New York over the next few weeks. And yet, she thought as she read a few follow-up scenes with the motive …

  Having him there, making him a part of the death of the ex-lover triggered emotions in him. Seeing her die shattered him, pushed him into grief and depression. Rather than giving the killer what she wanted—his attention and love, his salvation—it built a wall around him.

  Would Strongbow edit that mistake? Eve wondered.

  She rose to pace, to give her eyes a break, to work her way into thinking like a killer whose entire being sprang from the pages of a book.

  By having him in the club, the killer—in the book—failed to achieve her primary goal. The motive didn’t come to her, love her, throw off what she saw as the chains the victim had around him, dragging him down into the abyss. In fact, rather than weaning him off illegals, he used them to block the grief, and missed recording sessions and canceled a swath of tours.

  Until the cat ran out of the room, until she heard Roarke’s voice answer the cat’s greeting, she hadn’t realized the low-level stress inside her.

  She’d wanted him home, off those icy roads. Safe and with her.

  She didn’t run out of the room like the c
at, but she did walk out and wrap her arms around Roarke. “It’s bad out there.”

  “It’s bloody vicious out there.” He tipped her head back for a kiss, skimming his thumb over the dent in her chin. “And now we’re all in here. And in this world, at this moment, I want nothing more than my cop, my cat, to get out of his shagging suit, and have a very large drink.”

  “A hard one?”

  “Not particularly, no. Well, but for the bleeding weather. A quick trip to Chicago, or what would’ve been quick but for the bleeding weather.”

  “You went to Chicago?”

  “Should’ve handled it by holo, and that’ll teach me. Getting there, simple enough. Getting back? Not altogether pleasant.”

  And, she thought, he’d have stayed over in Chicago if not for her. She considered her own skidding ride home in the ice storm, and didn’t want to imagine flying through it in a shuttle.

  “I’ll deal with dinner while you change.”

  “Will you?”

  She heard the world of suspicion in his voice.

  “It won’t be pizza. But this is the last time it won’t be pizza.”

  “What will it be then?”

  “I’ll figure it out.”

  Easing back, he rubbed his hands down her arms. “A hard one?”

  “I’ll tell you about it over that big drink.”

  “That sounds exactly right. I won’t be long.”

  She turned back to her board, conceded she’d done little to narrow the field. Then again, the weather—“bloody vicious” nailed it—lowered the chances of her potential victims braving it for a club night. It seemed to her the killer would conclude the same.

  They should all have a little more time, she decided, and went into the kitchen to consider dinner choices.

  By the time he came back in black pants and a blue sweater, she had the meal under warming domes and a bottle of wine opened.

  “Now this is our version of cozy on a cold and filthy night. I’m grateful for it,” he added as he took the wine.

  “Why Chicago?”

  “Hmm? Ah, we’ve just finished up a major rehab to one of the hotels, and I’d scheduled the visit, some media and so forth, before this front moved in.”

 
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