Conspiracy in death, p.8
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       Conspiracy in Death, p.8

         Part #8 of In Death series by J. D. Robb
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  "You broke my cue!" Close to tears, Ledo lunged forward and grabbed for his baby. The handle jerked up and caught Eve on the cheekbone. She saw stars, but she didn't blink.

  "Ledo, you asshole," she began.

  "Hold it." The man who walked in looked like one of the ladder-climbing execs that raced along the streets overhead and several blocks north. He was slim and stylish and clean.

  The thin layer of scum that coated everything else didn't seem to touch him.

  With one hand restraining Ledo, Eve turned, yanked out her badge. "At the moment," she said evenly, "I've got no problem with you. Do you want that to change?"

  "Not at all…" He flicked his silvery blue eyes at her badge, over her face, let them pass over Peabody, who stood at alert. "Lieutenant," he finished. "I'm afraid we rarely have any of New York's finest visit the establishment. My customers were taken by surprise."

  He dropped his gaze to the man who still moaned on the floor. "In a number of ways," he added. "I'm Carmine, and this is my place. What can I do for you?"

  "Not a thing, Carmine. I just want to chat with one of your…customers."

  "I'm sure you'd like to have somewhere quiet to chat. Why don't I show you to one of our privacy rooms?"

  "That'll be just dandy, Carmine. Peabody?" Eve wrenched the cue out of Ledo's grip and passed it over. "My aide's going to be walking right behind you, Ledo. If you don't keep up, she's likely to stumble and that precious stick of yours might get rammed right up your butt."

  "I didn't do nothing," Ledo claimed in something close to a wail, but he kept pace with Eve as she followed Carmine through a curtained area to a line of doors.

  Carmine opened one, gestured. "Anything else I can do for you, Lieutenant?"

  "Just keep your customers chilled, Carmine. Neither one of us wants NYPSD to order a sweep on this place."

  He acknowledged the warning with a nod, then left them alone as Eve tossed the whining Ledo into the room. "You stand, Peabody. You're cleared to use your weapon if anyone blinks at you."

  "Yes, sir." Peabody shifted her grip on the cue, set her free hand on her stunner, and put her back to the wall.

  Satisfied, Eve stepped inside, closed the door. As amenities went, it was a zero, with its narrow cot, smudged view screen, and sticky floor. But it was private.

  "Well, Ledo." Eve fingered the raw bruise on her cheekbone—not because it stung, though it did. She used the gesture to make Ledo tremble in fear of retribution. "Been awhile."

  "I've been clean," he said quickly, and she laughed, keeping the sound low and sharp.

  "Don't insult my intelligence. You wouldn't be clean after six days in a decontamination chamber. You know what this does?" She tapped a finger on her facial bruise. "This assaulting an officer deal gives me the right to search you right now, to haul your skinny butt into Central, and to get a warrant to go through your flop."

  "Hey, Dallas, hey." He held up both hands, palms up. "It was an accident."

  "Maybe I'll let it go at that, Ledo. Maybe I will—if you convince me you're in a cooperative mood."

  "Damn straight, Dallas. What d'ya want? Some Jazz, Go Smoke, Ecstasy?" He started to dig in his pockets. "No charge, none whatsoever for you. I don't got it now, I'll get it."

  Her eyes turned to bright gold slits. "You take anything out of your pockets but your ugly fingers, Ledo, you're even more stupid than I figured. And I figured you for a brain the size of a walnut."

  His hands froze, his thin face went blank. Then he tried a manly chuckle, lifting his empty hands clear. "Like you said, Dallas, been a while. I guess maybe I forgot how you stand on shit. No harm, right?"

  She said nothing, simply stared him down until the sweat popped out on his upper lip. She'd see he was back in a cage, she mused, at the first opportunity. But for now, she had bigger fish on the line.

  "You—you want info? I ain't your weasel. Never was any cop's weasel, but I'm willing to trade info."

  "Trade?" she said, coldly.

  "Give." Even his tiny brain began to click in. "You ask, I know, I tell. How's that?"

  "That's not bad. Snooks."

  "The old man with the flowers?" Ledo shrugged what there was of his shoulders. "Somebody sliced him open, I hear. Took pieces of him. I don't touch that stuff."

  "You deal to him."

  Ledo did his best to look cagey. "Maybe we had some business, off and on."

  "How'd he pay?"

  "He'd beg off some credits, or sell some of his flowers and shit. He had the means when he needed a hit of something—which was mostly."

  "He ever stiff you or any other dealers?"

  "No. You don't give sleepers nothing unless they pay up first. Can't trust 'em. But Snooks, he was okay. No harm. He just minded his own. Nobody was doing for him that I ever heard. Good customer, no hassle."

  "You work the area where he camped regularly?"

  "Gotta make a living, Dallas." When she pinned him with her stare again, he realized his mistake. "Yeah, I deal there. It's mostly my turf. Couple others slide in and out, but we don't get in each other's way. Free enterprise."

  "Did you see anybody who didn't look like they belonged down there lately, anybody asking about Snooks or those like him?"

  "Like the suit?"

  Eve felt her blood jump, but only leaned back casually against the wall. "What suit?"

  "Guy came down one night, duded top to bottom. Frigid threads, man. Looked me up." More comfortable now, Ledo sat on the narrow bed, crossed one stick leg over the other. "Figured at first he didn't want to buy his stuff in his own neighborhood, you know. So he comes slumming. But he wasn't looking for hits."

  Eve waited while Ledo entertained himself by picking at his cuticles. "What was he looking for?"

  "Snooks, I figure. Dude said what he looked like, but I can't say that meant dick to me. Mostly the sleepers look alike. But he said how this one drew stuff and made flowers, so I copped to Snooks on that."

  "And you told him where Snooks kept his crib."

  "Sure, why not?" He started to smile, then his tiny little brain began the arduous process of deduction."Man, shit, the suit cut Snooks open? Why'd he do that for? Look, look, Dallas, I'm clean here. Dude asks where the sleeper flops, I tell him. I mean, why not, right? I don't know how he's got in mind to go killing anybody."

  Sweat was popping again as he jumped to his feet. "You can't bounce it back on me. I just talked to the bastard is all."

  "What did he look like?"

  "I don't know. Good." In plea or frustration, Ledo threw out his arms. "A dude. A suit. Clean and shiny."

  "Age, race, height, weight," Eve said flatly.

  "Man, man." Grabbing hanks of his hair, Ledo began to pace the tiny room. "I don't pay attention. It was a couple, three nights ago. A white dude?" He posed it as a question, tossing Eve a hopeful look. She only watched him. "I think he was, maybe white. I was looking at his coat, you know. Long, black coat. Looked real warm and soft."

  Moron, was all Eve could think. "When you talked to him, did you have to look up, or down, or straight on?"

  "Ah…up!" He beamed like a child acing a spelling quiz. "Yeah, he was a tall dude. I don't get his face, Dallas. Man, it was dark and we weren't standing in no light or nothing. He had his hat on, his coat all buttoned. It was cold as a dead whore out there."

  "You never saw him before? He hasn't come around since?"

  "No, just that one time. A couple—no three nights back. Just the once." Ledo swiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "I didn't do nothing."

  "You ought to get that tattooed on your forehead, Ledo, then you wouldn't have to say it every five minutes. I'm done for now, but I want to be able to find you, real easy, if I need to talk to you again. If I have to hunt you up, it's going to piss me off."

  "I'll be around." His relief was so great, his eyes went shiny with tears. "Everybody knows where to find me."

  He started to dash out, then froze like an icicle when Eve clamped a
hand on his arm. "If you see the suit again, Ledo, or one like him, you get in touch. You don't say anything to put the suit off, then you get your ass on your 'link and call me." She bared her teeth in a smile that made his bowels loosen. "Everybody knows where to find me, too."

  He opened his mouth, then decided that cold look in her eyes meant he shouldn't attempt to negotiate weasel pay. He bobbed his head three times and sprang through the door when she opened it.

  • • • •

  The muscles in Peabody's gut didn't unknot until they were back in their vehicle and three blocks east. "Well, that was fun," she said in a bright voice. "Next, let's find some sharks and go swimming."

  "You held, Peabody."

  The muscles that had just loosened quivered with pleasure. From Eve, it was the staunchest of cop compliments. "I was scared right down to the toes."

  "That's because you're not stupid. If you were stupid, you wouldn't be riding with me. Now we know they wanted Snooks in particular," Eve mused. "Not just any sleeper, not just any heart. Him. His. What made him so damn special? Pull up his data again, read it off."

  Eve listened to the facts, the steps of a man's life, from birth to waste, and shook her head. "There has to be something there. They didn't pull him out of a damn hat. A family thing maybe…" She let the theory wind through her mind. "One of his kids or grandkids, pissed off about the way he dropped out, left them flat. The heart. Could be symbolic."

  "You broke my heart, I'm taking yours?"

  "Something like that." Families, all those degrees of love and hate that brewed in them, confused and baffled her. "We'll dig into the family, run with this idea for a bit, mostly just to close it off."

  She pulled back up at the scene, scanning the area first. The police sensors were still in place, everything secure. Apparently, there was no one in this neighborhood with the skill or knowledge to bypass them to get to whatever was left in Snooks's crib.

  She spotted the pair of glide-cart vendors on the corner, huddling unhappily in the smoke pouring off the grill. Business was not brisk.

  A couple of panhandlers wandered aimlessly. Their beggars' licenses hung in clear view around their scrawny necks. And, Eve thought, they were likely forged. Across the street, the homeless and the mad crowded around a barrel fire that appeared to let off more stink than warmth.

  "Talk to the vendors," Eve ordered Peabody. "They see more than most. We could get lucky. I want another look at his crib."

  "Ah, I bet they'd talk looser if I were to buy a soy-dog."

  Eve arched a brow as they climbed out of opposite doors. "You must be desperate if you're willing to risk putting anything that comes from this neighborhood in your mouth."

  "Pretty desperate," Peabody agreed and squared her shoulders, strode purposefully toward the grill.

  Eve felt eyes on her as she uncoded the sensors long enough to pass through. The eyes burned into her back: anger, resentment, confusion, misery. She could feel all of it, every degree of despair and hope that slithered its way across the littered street to crawl over her skin.

  She struggled not to think of it.

  Pulling back the ratty blanket, she ducked inside the crib, hissed once through her teeth at the lingering stench of waste and death.

  Who were you, Snooks? What were you?

  She picked up a small bouquet of paper flowers, coated now with the thin layer of dust the crime team sweepers had left behind. They'd have sucked up hair, fibers, fluids, the dead cells the body sloughs off routinely. There would have been grime and muck and dirt to sift through. A scene as nasty as this one would take time. Separating, analyzing, identifying.

  But she didn't think the findings there would lead her to the answers she needed.

  "You were careful," she murmured to the killer. "You were neat. You didn't leave any of yourself here. Or so you thought."

  Both victim and killer always left something. An imprint, an echo. She knew how to look and listen for it.

  They'd come in their fancy car, in the dead of night, in the dead of winter. Dressed warmly, dressed well. They hadn't crept in, hadn't attempted to blend.


  They hadn't rushed, hadn't worried.


  Disgust. They would have felt it, mildly, as they drew the curtain back and the smell hit them. But doctors would be used to unpleasant odors, she imagined.

  They wore masks. Surgical masks. And their hands would have been encased in gloves or Seal-It. For protection, for routine, for caution.

  They'd used antiseptic. Sterilizing? Routine, she mused, just routine as it wouldn't have mattered if the patient had suffered from any contamination.

  They would have needed light. Something stronger and cleaner than the wavering glow from the candle stub or battery flash Snooks kept on one of his lopsided shelves.

  In the doctor's bag, she imagined. A high-powered minilamp. Microgoggles. Laser scalpel, and other tools of the trade.

  Did he wake up then? she wondered. Did he surface from sleep for just a moment when the light flashed? Did he have time to think, wonder, fear before the pressure syringe punched flesh and sent him under?

  Then it was all business. But that she couldn't imagine. She knew nothing about the routine of doctors opening bodies. But she thought it would be just that. More routine.

  Working quickly, competently, saying little.

  How did it feel to hold a man's heart in your hands?

  Was that routine as well, or did it shoot a thrill of power, of accomplishment, of glory through the mind? She thought it would. Even if it was only for an instant, he or she felt like a god.

  A god proud enough to take the time, to use his talents to do the job well.

  And that's what they had left behind, she thought. Pride, arrogance, and cool blood.

  Her eyes were still narrowed in concentration when her communicator sounded. Laying the paper flowers aside, she reached for it.


  Feeney's mournful face swam on the miniscreen. "I found another one, Dallas. You better come in and have a look."

  *** CHAPTER SIX ***

  "Erin Spindler," Feeney began, nodding toward the image on the view screen in one of the smaller conference rooms at Cop Central. "Mixed race female, age seventy-eight, licensed companion, retired. Last few years, she ran a small stable of LCs. All street workers. Got slapped regularly with citations. Let some of her ponies' licenses lapse or didn't bother with the regulation health checks. She got roused for running scams on Johns a few times but slithered clear."

  Eve studied the image. A sharp, thin face, skin faded to yellow paste, eyes hard. Mouth flat with a downward, dissatisfied droop. "What section did she work?"

  "Lower East Side. Started out uptown. Looks like she had some class if you go back fifty years. Started using, started sliding." He moved his shoulders. "Had a taste for Jazz, and that doesn't come cheap uptown. She went from appointment book whore to pickup by the time she hit forty."

  "When was she murdered?"

  "Six weeks ago. One of the LCs found her in her flop down on Twelfth."

  "Was her heart taken?"

  "Nope. Kidneys." Feeney turned and brought straight data on-screen. "Her building didn't have any security, so there's no record of who went in and out. Investigator's report is inconclusive as to whether she let the killer in or he bypassed her locks. No sign of struggle, no sexual assault, no apparent robbery. Victim was found in bed, minus the kidneys. Postmortem puts her dead for twelve hours before discovery."

  "What's the status of the case?"

  "Open." Feeney paused. "And inactive."

  "What the hell do you mean, inactive?"

  "Thought that would get you." His mouth thinned as he brought up more data. "The primary—some dickhead named Rosswell attached to the one sixty-second—concluded the victim was killed by an irate John. It's his decision that the nature of the case is unclosable and not worth the department's time or efforts."

nbsp; "The one six-two? Same house as Bowers. Do they breed morons down there? Peabody," she snapped, but her aide already had her 'link out.

  "Yes sir, contacting Rosswell at the one six-two. I assume you'll want him here as soon as possible for a consult."

  "I want his sorry ass in my office within the hour. Good tag, Feeney, thanks. You get any others?"

  "This was the only local that fit like crimes. I figured you'd want to move on it right away. I've got McNab running the rest."

  "Let him know I want a call if anything pops. Can you feed this data into my office and home units?"

  "Already done." With the faintest of grins, Feeney tugged on his ear. "I haven't had much fun lately. Mind if I watch you ream Rosswell?"

  "Not a bit. In fact, why don't you help me?"

  He let out a sigh. "I was hoping you'd say that."

  "We'll do it in here. Peabody?"

  "Rosswell will report in one hour, Lieutenant." Struggling not to look smug, she pocketed her 'link. "I believe we could say he's terrified of you."

  Eve's smile was slow and grim. "He should be. I'll be in my office; tag me when he gets here."

  Her 'link was ringing when she walked in. She answered absently as she hunted through her drawers for anything that might resemble food.

  "Hello, Lieutenant."

  She blinked at the screen, then dropped into her chair to continue the search when she saw it was Roarke. "Somebody's been stealing my candy again," she complained.

  "There's no trusting cops." When she only snorted, his eyes narrowed. "Come closer."

  "Hmm." Damn it, she wanted her candy bar. "What?"

  "Where did you get that?"

  "Get what? Aha! Didn't find this one, did you, you thieving bastard." In triumph she plucked a Gooybar from under a stack of yellow sheets.

  "Eve, how did you bruise your face?"

  "My what?" She was already ripping it open, taking a bite. "Oh, this?" It was the annoyance, barely audible under that musical voice, that made her smile. "Playing pool with the guys. Got a little rough for a minute. Now there are a couple of cues that won't ever be quite the same."

  Roarke ordered himself to relax the hands he'd fisted. He hated seeing marks on her. "You never mentioned you liked the game. We'll have to have a match."

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