Conspiracy in death, p.26
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       Conspiracy in Death, p.26
 

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

  "That's the operative word." She caught resentment mixed in the wariness in his tone. "I'm retired."

  "Yeah." She kept her eyes steady and level on him. "Just recently, someone's been wanting to see me retire. One way or the other. Could be a…medical thing."

  His eyes flickered, his mouth tightened. Before he could speak, Roarke stepped forward and aimed a charming smile at Karen. "Ms. McRae, I wonder if I could trouble you for some coffee? My wife and I drove straight in from the airport."

  "Oh, of course. I'm so sorry." Her hands fluttered up from their resting place on her belly to her throat. "I'll make some right away."

  "Why don't I help you?" With a smile in place that could have melted a woman's heart at fifty paces, he put a gentle hand on the small of her back. "We'll let our respective spouses talk shop. You have a lovely home."

  "Thank you. Will and I have been putting it together for nearly two years now."

  As their voices faded, Will never took his eyes off Eve's. "I'm not going to be able to help you."

  "You don't know what I want or what I need. Yet. I can't show you ID, McRae, because they took my badge a few days ago." She watched his eyes narrow. "They found a way to get me out, off the case, so I figure I was getting close to something. Or they just didn't like the heat. And I figure they found a way to get you out and have that asshole Kimiki take over the investigation."

  Will snorted, and some of the wariness faded. "Kimiki can barely find his own dick with both hands."

  "Yeah, I got that. I'm a good cop, McRae, and their mistake this time was another good cop's got the case now. We've got three bodies in New York with parts missing. You had one here, same MO. There's another in Paris, one in London. We're still running like crimes."

  "I can't help you, Dallas."

  "What'd they use on you?"

  "I've got a family." He said it, low and fierce. "A wife, a five-year-old son, a baby on the way. Nothing happens to them. Nothing. You get that?"

  "Yeah." She got something else, too. Fear that wasn't for himself. Frustration at being helpless against it. "Nobody knows I'm here, and nobody's going to know. I'm on my own in this, and I'm not letting go."

  He walked past her to the window, smoothed the pretty white curtains. "You got kids?"

  "No."

  "My boy, he's spending a couple of days with Karen's mother. She's due any day. The kid's amazing. Beautiful." He turned, gestured with a jerk of his head to a framed holoprint on the end table.

  Obligingly, Eve moved over, lifted it, and studied the cheerfully grinning face. Big brown eyes, dusty blond hair, and dimples. Kids mostly looked the same to her. Cute, innocent, and unfathomable. But she knew the response expected of her. "He's a beaut, all right."

  "They said they'd do him first."

  Eve's fingers tightened on the frame before she set it carefully down again. "They contacted you?"

  "Set a fucking droid on me. Caught me by surprise, knocked me around some. I don't give a shit about that." He whirled back. "Told him to tell his keeper to go to hell. I did the job, Dallas. Then the droid explains just what'll happen to my family, my little boy, my wife, the baby she's carrying. Scared me bloodless. So I figure I'll send them away, do the job, get these bastards. Then I get pictures in the mail, pictures of Karen and Will, coming out of a toy store, the market, playing in the yard at my mother's, where I sent them. And one of that fucking droid holding Will. Holding him," he said in a voice pitched low but vibrating with vicious fury. "He had his hands on my son. Message that came with it said the next time they'd cut out his heart. He's five years old."

  He sat, buried his head in his hands. "Sometimes the badge can't come first."

  She understood love now, and the terror it could bring to you. "Did you tell your boss?"

  "I didn't tell anybody. It's been eating at me for months." He sat, continued to lean over, while his fingers kept raking through his close-cropped hair. "I'm working private security at night, playing down in that idiot workshop half the day making birdhouses. I'm going crazy here."

  Eve sat beside him, leaned in. "Help me get them. Help me put them away where they can't touch your family."

  "I can't ever go back to the job." He lowered his hands. "I can't ever pick up a badge again. And I can't be sure just how far they can reach out."

  "Nothing you tell me goes in a report, official or otherwise. Tell me about the droid; give me a line here."

  "Hell." He rubbed his eyes. For weeks he'd lived with doing nothing, with backing down, with the fear. "Six two, two ten. Caucasian, brown and brown. Sharp features. Top-line model. Combat trained."

  "I met his brother," she said with a thin smile. "What buttons were you pushing when the threats started?"

  "I'd shaken out some slime from the black market, but it wasn't going anywhere. Nothing I'd run on the victim turned up anything that made it look like a personal hit. I went in circles awhile, but I kept coming back to how it was done. So goddamn neat, right?"

  "Yeah, very neat and tidy."

  "There's a free clinic a few blocks from the crime scene. The victim had been in there a few times. I interviewed the rotation doctors, ran them. It looked like a dead end, too. But it didn't feel like one," he added, relaxing a little when Eve nodded.

  "I started circling out, hitting other med centers, crosschecking surgeons. I started scratching at the Nordic Clinic, and the next thing I know, the boss calls me in and says that fathead Waylan's making noises about harassment, entrapment, Christ knows what, and demanding that we show some respect for the medical community. Shit."

  "Waylan. He cropped up on my watch, too."

  "Damn embarrassment to the state," Will began. "Karen's the one who gets into politics. Don't get her started on Waylan." For the first time, he grinned, and his face looked abruptly younger. "In this house, we hate him. Anyhow, I figured there was something there, too. What the hell does he care—except he's got relatives in the AMA. I'm starting to check it out, then I'm blind-sided, flat on my back, and the goddamn droid's got a laser at my throat."

  He sighed, rose to pace. "I was going to tell my boss, put it in the report, but on my next shift, I get called upstairs. Commander tells me that there's more complaints about the tone of my investigation. I'm not getting support from the brass; instead, they're warning me to watch my step, don't step on the wrong toes. Ease back, it was only scum that got taken out, anyway. Don't hassle nice people. Rich, powerful people," McRae said, turning back. "Pissed me off. That's when I decided to send my family away and dig in deeper. Until I got the pictures, then I folded. Faced with the same choice, I'd do the same thing again."

  "I'm not going to beat you up over it, Will. I don't have what you have to risk. The way I look at it, you took it as far as you could, for as long as you could."

  "I gave up my badge." His voice cracked, and she watched him suck it in. "They took yours."

  He needed something, she thought, and worked up a smile for him. "We got fucked either way, didn't we."

  "Yeah. We got fucked royal, Dallas."

  "I'm going to ask you to give me anything you can, and maybe we can return the favor. Did you copy any of your files?"

  "No. But I remember a lot of it. I've been going over the details in my head for months. I've written some of it down for myself." He glanced over his shoulder as he heard his wife's voice. "Karen doesn't know anything about this. I don't want her upset."

  "Give me the name of somebody you put away who's been sprung."

  "Drury. Simon Drury."

  "I'm here about Drury." She glanced over, lifted a brow as Roarke strolled in carrying a tray loaded with cups, plates. Coffee and cookies, she mused, then struggled with a scowl as she noted the cream pitcher in the shape of a cheerful white kitten.

  The man never lost a damn bet.

  "Looks great." She helped herself to a cookie, mildly fascinated by the way Karen had to maneuver her body, shift her spectacular belly in order to sit down. How, Eve wonde
red, did a woman function on any level hauling all that bulk around?

  Noting where Eve's gaze had focused, Karen smiled and stroked a hand over the mound. "I'm due today."

  Eve choked on the cookie. If Karen had whipped out a laser on full and blasted it in her direction, she'd have felt less panic. "Today? Like now?"

  "Well, not this minute, apparently." Laughing, Karen sent Roarke an adoring look as he served her tea. Quite obviously, they'd bonded between cookies and kittens. "But I don't think she's going to wait much longer."

  "I guess you'll be glad to—you know—get it out of there."

  "I can't wait to meet her—hold her. But I love being pregnant."

  "Why?"

  She laughed again at Eve's obvious puzzlement, then shared a tender look with her husband. "Making a miracle."

  "Well." Since that dried up her pregnancy conversation, Eve turned back to Will. "We don't want to take up any more of your time. I appreciate the help. If you could get me any of your old notes on Drury, I'd be grateful."

  "I can dig them out." He rose, paused by his wife to lay a hand over hers, linking them over their child.

  • • • •

  At Eve's request, Roarke drove aimlessly while she filled him in on her conversation with Wilson McRae.

  "Do you blame him?"

  She shook her head. "Everyone has their own, what do you call it, Achilles' heel. They found his and put the pressure on. Guy's got a kid, another on the way, a pretty little wife in a pretty little house. They knew just where to jam him."

  "She's a teacher." Roarke cruised the freeway under the flood of safety lights and kept the speed steady. "She's been working on-screen for the last six months and plans to continue that way for at least another year or two. But she misses the personal contact with her students. She's a very sweet woman who's worried about her husband."

  "How much does she know?"

  "Not all, but more, I believe, than he thinks. Will he go back when you close the case?"

  Not if, she noted, but when. It bolstered the heart to have someone with so much faith in her. More faith, she realized, than she had in herself just now. "No. He'll never get past giving it up. They stole that from him. And sometimes you never get back everything."

  She closed her eyes a moment. "Will you drive downtown? I need to look. I need to see if I remember."

  "There's no need to take on more now, Eve."

  "Sometimes you never get rid of everything, either. I need to look."

  Another city, she thought, with some of its old stone and brick desperately preserved, and so much of it crumbled to dust to make room for sleek steel and quick prefab.

  There would be snazzy restaurants and clubs, slick hotels and glittering shops in the areas where the power board wanted the tourists, and their I'm-on-vacation money, to congregate. And there would be sex joints, dives, scarred units, and alley filth in others where only the doomed and the foolish gathered.

  It was there Roarke drove the gleaming silver car through the narrow streets, where the lights pumped in hard colors and promised all the darker delights. Street LCs shivered on corners and hoped for a trick to take them out of the wind. Dealers prowled, angling for a mark, ready to do business at discounted rates because the cold kept all but the desperately addicted inside.

  Sidewalk sleepers huddled inside their cribs, drank their brew, and waited for morning.

  "Stop here," she murmured it, squinting at a corner building with bricks pitted and laced with graffiti. The lower windows were barred and blocked with wood. It called itself Hotel South Side in a sign that blinked jerkily in watery blue.

  She got out, staring up at the windows. Some were cracked, all were blackened with cheap privacy screens. "Too much the same," she said quietly. "All these places are too much the same. I don't know."

  "Do you want to go in?"

  "I don't know." As she dragged a hand over her face, through her hair, a lanky man with icy eyes moved out of the shadows.

  "Looking for action? Need a boost? You got some jingles, I got what you need. Prime Zeus, Ecstasy, Zoner. Mix or match."

  Eve flicked him a glance. "Back off, creep, or I'll pop your eyes out of your head and make you eat them."

  "Hey, bitch, you're on my turf, you get some manners." He'd already tagged the car, and figured his marks as stupid, rich tourists. He flipped out his pocket blade, grinning as he tipped the killing point. "Let's have the wallets and jewelry and all that good shit. We'll call it even."

  She took a second to debate whether to kick his teeth in or restrain him for the beat cop. A second was all Roarke needed. With her mouth pursed, Eve watched his fist flash out, a fast flurry of movement that had the knife skittering down the sidewalk. She didn't have time to blink before he had the dealer by the throat two inches off the ground.

  "I believe you called my wife a bitch."

  The only response was a wheezing gag as the man struggled like a landed trout. Merely shaking her head, Eve strolled over, scooped up the knife, folded the blade back in place.

  "Now," Roarke continued in a mild, amazingly pleasant voice, "if I pop your eyes out, I get to eat them. If I still see you, say, five seconds after I toss your pitiful ass aside, I'm going to have a hell of an appetite."

  He bared his teeth in a grin, heaved. The dealer hit the sidewalk with a rattle of bones, scrambled up, and took off in a limping sprint.

  "Now." Fastidiously, Roarke dusted off his hands. "Where were we?"

  "I liked the part about you eating his eyes. I'll have to use that one." She slipped the knife into her pocket, kept her hand over it. "Let's go in."

  There was a single yellow light in the lobby, and a single burly droid behind the smeared security glass. He eyed them balefully, jerked a thumb at the rate sign.

  For a dollar a minute, you got a room with a bed. For two, you got the additional amenity of a toilet.

  "Third floor," Eve said briefly. "East corner."

  "You get the room I give you."

  "Third floor," she said again. "East corner."

  His gaze lowered to the hundred dollar credit Roarke flipped into the tray. "Don't mean a shit to me." He reached behind, took a key code from a rack. His fingers snagged the credit, then tossed down the key. "Fifty minutes. You go over, you pay double."

  Eve took the key for 3C, relieved to see her hand was still steady. They took the stairs.

  It wasn't familiar, yet it was painfully familiar. Narrow steps, dirty walls, thin sounds of sex and misery seeping through them. Cold, from the wind battering the brick and glass, reached down and froze the bones.

  She said nothing as she slipped the key into the slot, pushed the door open.

  The air was bitter and stale, with echoes of sweat and sex. The sheets on the bed shoved into the corner were stained with both and the rusty shadows of old blood.

  With the breath strangling in her throat, she stepped inside. Roarke closed the door behind them, waited.

  A single window, cracked. But so many were. The old floor, slanted and scarred. But she'd seen hundreds like it. Her legs trembled as she made herself walk across it, stand at that window and stare out.

  How many times, she wondered, had she stood at windows in filthy little rooms and imagined herself leaping out, letting her body fall, feeling it smash and break on the street below? What had held her back, time after time, made her face the next day and the next? How many times had she heard the door open and prayed to a God she didn't understand to help her. To spare her. To save her.

  "I don't know if this is the room. There were so many rooms. But it was one like it. It's not so different from the last room, in Dallas. Where I killed him. But I was younger here. That's all I know for sure. I get a faded image of myself in my head. And of him. His hands around my throat."

  Absently, she reached up, soothed the memory of the ache. "Over my mouth. The shock of him pushing himself inside me. Not knowing, not knowing at first, what that meant. Except pain. Then you k
now what it means. You know you can't stop it. And as much as it hurts when he beats you, you hope when you hear the door open that's all he'll do. Sometimes it is."

  Eyes closed now, she rested her brow on the cracked glass. "I thought maybe I'd remember something from before. Before it all started. I had to come from somewhere. Some woman had to carry me inside her the way Karen's carrying her goddamn miracle. For God's sake, how could she leave me with him?"

  He turned her, wrapped his arms around her, drew her in. "She might not have had a choice."

  Eve swallowed back the grief and the rage, and finally the questions. "You always have a choice." She stepped back, but kept her hands on his shoulders. "None of this matters now. Let's go home."

  *** CHAPTER EIGHTEEN ***

  There wasn't any point in pretending to unwind. Nor was there any point in thinking about what she had to face the next day. Work was the answer. Before she could tell Roarke her intentions, he was making arrangements to have a meal sent up to his private office.

  "It makes more sense to use that equipment," he said simply. "It's faster, more efficient, and more thoroughly cloaked." He arched a brow. "That's what you want, isn't it?"

  "Yeah. I want to tag Feeney first," she began as they started upstairs. "Fill him in on my conversation with McRae."

  "I'll input the disc he gave you while you're doing that, do a quick cross-reference."

  "You're almost as good as Peabody."

  He stopped at the door, grabbed her up in a steaming kiss. "You can't get that from Peabody."

  "I could if I wanted." But it made her grin as he uncoded the locks. "But I like you better for sex."

  "I'm relieved to hear it. Use the minilink. It's fully jammed and untraceable."

  "What's one more com-tech violation?" she muttered.

  "That's what I always say." He sat behind the console, slid into the U, and got to work.

  "Feeney, Dallas. I'm back from Chicago."

  "I was just about to tag you. We got a hit on the lapel pin."

  "When?"

  "Just came in. Gold caduceus purchased less than one hour ago at Tiffany's, charged to the account of Dr. Tia Wo. I'm picking Peabody up for a little overtime. We're going to go have a chat with the doctor."

 
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