Leverage in death, p.22
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       Leverage in Death, p.22
 

         Part #47 of In Death series by J. D. Robb  

  “I’m Astrid. Astrid Baretta, but I only use Astrid. Angelo’s really dead?”

  “Were you friends?”

  “I guess we were. I—” She broke off, covered her face with her hands. “I admired his talent. He has real talent. He’s arrogant and full of himself, but why wouldn’t he be? We both shared a pretty serious work ethic. I sculpt. And I . . . I guess I should tell you I slept with him now and then. Nothing serious, but, well, it was handy for both of us.”

  “When did you see him last?”

  “I slept with him last night. A kind of good-luck fuck. Oh God, that sounds terrible.” Tears swirled now. “I didn’t mean it that way. I was happy for him, you know? I took over a bottle of champagne, and we drank it, and had sex, and I came home. I’ve been working all day, so I didn’t see him before he left to load in.”

  “Is that one of his paintings?”

  Astrid nodded when Eve gestured to a study of a woman with gold and green hills behind her back as she stood in a garden with a basket on her hip and her face lifted to the sun.

  “Yes. He painted it when he lived in Italy. That’s Tuscany, one of my favorite places. I bought it shortly after he moved in here.” She let out a sigh. “I could afford it, and this space. Family money. It’s why I only use my first name. I really want to make my own name. Got a ways to go yet.

  “But Angelo? He was going to bust out. He was already getting serious attention. And he had years and years ahead of him. And now, he’s gone? Right at the start of his rise? A fucking gas leak?”

  “It wasn’t a gas leak.”

  “I don’t understand. You said explosion.”

  “Would you come across the hall?”

  Eve led the way to where Peabody conducted a search.

  Astrid didn’t gasp. She moaned, a deep, guttural moan. “No, no, no. Who would do this? Who could do this? His work. Monsters. Fucking monsters.”

  Tears didn’t just swirl now, but streamed.

  “Who would do this?” Eve echoed.

  “I don’t know. I don’t know anyone who’d do this.” Weeping, she knelt down, touched a ripped canvas. “I hope they burn in hell for it. Maybe, maybe some can be restored. They’d never be the same, but there are some good restoration artists. He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t—”

  She broke off, and those tears shut off like a tap turned. “Not a gas leak. What kind of cop are you?”

  “We’re Homicide.”

  “Murder.” With the hands balled and shaking at her sides, Astrid got slowly to her feet. “You’re saying someone murdered Angelo.”

  “And four others.”

  “An explosion? Somebody set off a bomb. At the Salon. His work there. His work here.”

  Her face went hard as the stone on her workbench. “Oh, I see. I see. Three reasons, there are only three reasons I see.”

  “What are they?”

  “Somebody’s just crazy—straight crazy. Somebody crazy jealous because he was about to bust out. Or somebody who figures a dead artist’s work, especially if a lot of it is gone—is worth a hell of a lot more than a live one’s.”

  “Do you know anyone who fits any of those reasons?”

  “I don’t. I’d tell you if I did. I’d help you hunt them down myself.”

  “Who had access to this unit?”

  “Just Angelo. Like I said, we slept together sometimes—and we both slept with other people sometimes. I had to knock or buzz. As far as I know, so did everybody. He didn’t have any close friends, not really. But he didn’t have anybody who hated him, either.”

  “Did he ever mention Jordan Banks?”

  “Not to me.”

  “Hugo Markin?”

  “No, sorry.”

  “Wayne Denby.”

  “Sure. He’s one of the owners of the Salon. I actually met him a couple times. He came over to talk to Angelo about which paintings to include in the show, and the fact is, he had a better sense of the flow than Angelo—and Angelo knew it. He’s all right, isn’t he?”

  “No.”

  Her lips parted, trembled. “He had a kid. He talked about his little boy. He was leaving here, he said the first time I met him, to meet his wife and his little boy, taking him to a—a puppet show.”

  “Did you see anyone in or around the building today who shouldn’t have been? Did you hear anything?”

  Astrid shook her head as tears swirled again. “I’ve been working all day, I like the music loud. But—Lollie. Maybe Lollie. She watches the street a lot, for inspiration.”

  “Which apartment?”

  “I’ll take you down. Please, I have to do something.” She stared at the torn and sliced canvases. “I have to do something. I’ll take you down.”

  “Peabody, keep the scene secured.”

  “Affirmative. I let Baxter know the situation. They should be here any minute.”

  “Let’s go, Astrid.”

  “It’s just one flight down. I thought you were Lollie when you buzzed. She’s been poking at me all day to come down to help her pick out an outfit for tonight. We were going together. She’s just had yet another dramafest breakup with her latest guy, so she’s—I’m babbling. I’m just pushing out words so I don’t think too hard.”

  “It’s okay.”

  The third floor held six units. Astrid walked to one Eve judged to be directly below Richie’s main studio space.

  The woman who answered wore a paint-splattered white smock over black skin pants. The smock didn’t disguise the curvy body beneath.

  Her hair streamed in multicolored braids around a stunning face dominated by enormous eyes of tawny gold.

  “Finally! Come see which—Oh, sorry. Hi!”

  She beamed a smile at Eve.

  “Lollie, this is Lieutenant—sorry, I forgot.”

  “Dallas.”

  “Lieutenant Dallas. She—”

  “Oh sure, like the one in the vid. Hi!”

  “Not like a vid,” Astrid began.

  “Sure it is. I watched it last night and ate a pint of ice cream because I felt sad and pissy about Franco. They had an And the Winner Is marathon going. I watched a lot of it. Are you going to model for Astrid? That’s just entirely frosty. You’ve got a terrific face.”

  “She’s not here about that. Sorry,” Astrid said to Eve, and took Lollie by the shoulders. “Shh. This is bad, Lollie.”

  “What’s bad?”

  “Angelo. He was killed.”

  “Don’t say that, Astrid. Don’t say that. He’s getting ready for his opening.”

  “It happened at the Salon.” She walked Lollie backward into a room less than half the size of the studios above. An easel with a canvas stood by the big window, a drop cloth beneath. Eve saw the half-finished cityscape as Astrid steered Lollie to a chair.

  “Somebody’s playing a nasty joke,” Lollie insisted.

  “No, it’s not a joke. And, Lollie, you’re not going to get hysterical or dramatic. This is important, so you’re going to wait for that.”

  “But . . . Angelo.”

  “You talk to Lieutenant Dallas for Angelo. I’m going to get us both a drink. I guess you can’t have any wine.”

  “No,” Eve confirmed. “Go ahead.”

  She pulled up a stool, faced Lollie. “When did you last see or speak with Angelo?”

  “Just this afternoon. I think it was afternoon or nearly. I hadn’t been up too long. I watched that marathon and ate too much ice cream, and I don’t have clocks. I don’t like to worry about time, but I think about noon. Because of the light.”

  “Where did you see him?”

  “I was having my energizer, and I saw him leaving, from the window. I opened the window—the small one on the side, and called out. I said: ‘Good luck, Angelo,’ and he blew me a kiss. He blew me a kiss, and walked away. I have to cry, Astrid.”

  “That’s okay, but no hysterics.” She handed Lollie a glass of straw-colored wine, knocked back half a glass herself.

  “Did you
see anyone in or around the building who shouldn’t have been?”

  “No. I painted right there. I can see out the window.”

  “You’re right below his studio. Did you hear anything up there?”

  “No. Well, the men who came for the other paintings. I heard the elevator go up.”

  “What men?”

  “From the Salon, I guess.”

  “What did they look like?”

  “I don’t know, really. I was painting. I just saw the car stop—and I didn’t want it in the painting.”

  “What kind of car?”

  “I guess it was a van, really. A black one. I blocked it and them out because they’d throw off the balance of my painting.”

  Eve took a stab. “Were they old men?”

  “I don’t . . . They didn’t move like old men. I guess I didn’t see their faces. They had sunshades on—it’s a bright day. And hats. And I was blocking them out. Then I heard the elevator go by and up. It makes a lot of noise.”

  “How long after Angelo left?”

  “Oh, a while. Closer to now than then. I don’t have clocks,” she said, eyes shining with tears. “I’m sorry.”

  “That’s okay.”

  “I sort of heard them up there. You don’t really hear a lot, but a couple of times I thought they dropped something or stomped around. And then I heard the elevator coming down. Then I saw them carrying out some of Angelo’s paintings. It made me think about the opening. I tagged you right after, Astrid, about what to wear.”

  “What time?” Eve snapped at Astrid.

  “Was that the first time you tagged me, Lollie?”

  “How many times did I?”

  “Four.”

  “The first time was when I saw Angelo leave. I guess maybe it was the third time. Sorry.”

  “It’s okay.” Astrid rubbed Lollie’s shoulder. “I think that was about two-thirty or three. That’s my best guess. The first time was about eleven-thirty, so that would be when Angelo left. And the second was a little after one—because I had to take a break. And the third would have been after two-thirty, but I think before three. Because the fourth was just a few minutes before you came to the door, and I actually looked at the time. It was nearly five.”

  “That’s helpful. Lollie, what else can you tell me, about the men or the van?”

  “I wish I knew more. I don’t think they were old because they walked fast. I wanted them to—I just thought: Get out of my painting. The van was new, I think, or really clean. Shiny, and I didn’t want shiny.”

  “Did it have windows on the sides?”

  “No. Just that solid black, and it spoiled—”

  “Anything written on the side?”

  “Oh, like a company? No. Just black. I know that for sure.”

  “How about the hats? What kind of hats?”

  “Ooooh.” She gulped wine, closed her eyes. “I think earflaps? I think. I paint landscapes and cityscapes. If I paint people they’re just part of the scape—and not detailed. I look closer at things than people because I don’t paint people. But they weren’t old, and they had on black like the van. Sunshades, for certain. And I think earflap hats. Maybe gloves? I think maybe. I just didn’t look at them. They were in the way. And they were only in the painting for a few seconds each time.”

  “I’m going to show you a picture. Tell me if you think this might be one of the men.” Eve brought up Markin’s ID shot, laid her thumb over the data.

  Biting her lip, Lollie studied it. “I want to say yes because I want to help, but I just don’t know. I want to help. I modeled for Angelo. He paid me fair, and it helped me buy paints. I want to help. I’m so sorry.”

  “You have helped, both of you.”

  “We helped, Astrid.” Lollie turned her face into Astrid’s shoulder.

  Eve left them, went back upstairs where Baxter and Trueheart worked with Peabody.

  “The sweepers are heading in,” Peabody told her.

  “We’ve got an estimated time frame. Richie left about eleven-thirty. The nine-one-one on the bombing came in at fourteen-forty-six. Best estimate for the killers walking out of here with some of Richie’s paintings is between fourteen-thirty and fifteen hundred.”

  Baxter shook his head. “No way they tore up all these paintings, loaded up whatever they took in that amount of time—post bomb time. Fifteen minutes? They had to get in, get up, do all this, pack up paintings, get out.”

  “That’s right. They had Denby wired, so they could watch him. Cut him loose, followed him or dumped him near the Salon, continued here. It’s just a few blocks. They were probably in here, packing up what they wanted when the bomb went off. Then they tore up the rest. No need to tear up the rest if Denby didn’t follow through. They’d still have a few more paintings, so that’s a win either way.”

  “Security’s crap here,” Baxter considered. “Wouldn’t take much to get through it. Hop the elevator. Already packing material here, just use it, bust things up, cart things out. Transport?”

  “Black panel van. Shiny. That’s all the wit’s got. Two men—in black—sunshades, earflap hats. It’s a bright, breezy day, so that’s not going to stand out. She didn’t get a good look, didn’t pay attention, but we’ve got a black van, the timing, and that’s more than nothing.”

  “I’ll get uniforms to canvass,” Baxter said.

  “Do that. Trueheart, start checking rentals of late-model black panel vans.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Baxter, give me what you got from the wife and kid.”

  “Same description as the first round. Black clothes, hoods, white masks, black gloves. The wife woke up to a punch in the face in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The husband’s unconscious, and one of them punches her again while the other drags her husband to the foot of the bed, binds him to it—he’s gagged already.

  “She tells them to take whatever they want while they’re restraining her to the bed. She saw them snap something under the husband’s nose to revive him. He’s struggling, one punches her again, tells the husband to sit still, be quiet or he’ll hit her again. Then the other brings in the kid—screaming, crying for his mother. It’s like a replay, Dallas. They lock the kid up and away—don’t gag him so his parents can hear him crying. The only variation? When they threaten rape, she tells them she’s pregnant, begs them not to hurt her little boy or the baby.”

  “They hadn’t told many people,” Eve concluded. “The killers’ research missed that.”

  “They didn’t hit her much after that, backed off the rape threats. But . . .” Baxter hissed. “Fuckers. The last thing they said to the husband before they dragged her out, locked her downstairs? One pulls out a knife, tells the husband if he doesn’t do what they need him to do, he’ll slit the little boy’s throat. It’ll be fast, won’t hurt much. But then, he’s going to cut the baby out of the wife. She’ll die slow, and the baby? They’ll just have to see.”

  Eve walked to the window, stared out. “Any connection to Rogan, his wife, kid? To Karson?”

  “None we’ve found so far. She didn’t know any of them. The kid did say that the one who watched him most read him a couple stories.”

  “Not the one who talked about carving a fetus out of the woman.”

  “No, the other one.”

  “Softer touch. The other one likes the violence, the power of it. Still, they let them live. That’s not going to hold if they start on another family. That’s going to break, and soon. Trueheart?”

  “I’ve got a couple, Lieutenant. I want to check the suburbs and into New Jersey.”

  “Good thinking. Line them up, go run them down. Peabody, let’s go harass a few people on our list. Baxter, hold the scene for the sweepers, then start running down the rental vans.”

  She started down the steps. “Do a geographic on the list. We’ll take the first couple between here and Central, or close to that. Then you head home, and so will I. We’ll try cutting down the list before we start interv
iewing tomorrow.”

  Unless something broke, Eve thought, they were in for a long night, and a longer day after.

  16

  After interviews, briefings, paperwork and reports, Eve dragged into the house. And Summerset loomed.

  “You’re quite late tonight. Nothing lasts forever, I suppose.”

  She raked him with tired eyes. “You’ve lasted. Gotta be two or three hundred years by now.” She stripped off her coat, tossed it over the newel post, trudged her way upstairs.

  When she walked into her office, Roarke and the cat walked out of his. “There she is.”

  “What’s left of me.” As the cat rubbed against her legs, she shrugged out of her jacket. Even excellent material and a perfect fit could morph into the misery of a straitjacket after fifteen hours.

  Roarke took the jacket before she tossed it at the handiest chair. “First things,” he said. He took a little case out of his pocket, flipped it open.

  Eve scowled down at the tiny blue pain blockers. “Do you have stock in those things?”

  “I ought to by this point. Let’s deal with the headache I can all but hear banging, and take five minutes.”

  “I could use five minutes.” Though the headache wasn’t banging—it was more a muted thumping—she took the blocker, let him nudge her to the sofa. “You’ve been working, too.”

  “I have, yes, after Summerset and I had a meal together, and he told me a bit more about his holiday.” As he spoke, Roarke shifted Eve, began to knead her shoulders. “He and Ivanna enjoyed the time together.”

  “How am I supposed to ditch the headache if I’m thinking about Summerset sex?”

  “I didn’t mention sex.”

  “It’s implied.”

  “And if you push that line, we’ll both have headaches. To add to these rocks in your shoulders.”

  “Crap day. Pretty much crap day.” And wasn’t it just fine to lean back into those talented hands? “I ate. I pulled a Roarke and ordered in pizza for the team.”

  “So you said when you texted you’d be late. Points for you.” He leaned forward, laid a kiss on the back of her neck. “Why don’t I get you a glass of wine, and you can fill me in.”

  “I’d rather have a beer. I’d rather have coffee,” she added, “but you’d make those noises about needing a break from coffee. At least beer’s a cop drink.”

 
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