Pretty Little Things, p.12Jilliane Hoffman
Nineteen girls so far, all fitting the same general description.
His Nextel beeped as he climbed into his car. ‘Dees.’
It was Zo. ‘Yo, Bobby, listen up. I’m sitting here at MROC at my desk, getting ready to head on home, when Duty puts a call back from someone who you won’t believe is looking for you.’
‘That dick reporter from the other day. Felding. The guy’s all freaked out. I ask him what he wants, and, well, you really ain’t gonna believe the weird shit he’s telling me …’
Mark Felding sat anxiously on the edge of his seat in front of Zo’s desk. The hands that held the oversized manila envelope on his lap were shaking; the color was gone from his chiseled, photogenic face.
‘I got the mail late today,’ Mark said, fumbling for words. ‘I was in editing on my Special Report piece and then went to my mailbox. I’m not sure when it came in. I didn’t know who to call at first, to tell you the truth, but then I saw the slip of paper with Agent Dees’ name on it …’ He stopped himself, as if he didn’t want to go any further. ‘I put it back in there. In the envelope.’
‘How do you know this has anything to do with what you’re working on?’ Zo asked, shooting a look over at Bobby, who stood his distance in a corner, holding up a wall. Present, but removed. Channel Six Super Reporter might not have been that far off base when he’d said what he’d said Tuesday morning, but that didn’t mean Bobby wanted to be in a room again with him.
‘The note that was paper-clipped to the top of the picture said, “Nice Piece, Mark.” The South Florida runaway story is the only thing I’ve been working on. And of course,’ he said, nodding at the envelope as he passed it to Zo across the desk, ‘it has a young, you know, girl in it.’
The mailer had already been torn open. Zo flipped it upside down and with latexed fingers, slid out a folded piece of what looked like stiff cloth or canvas. A strip of newspaper gently fluttered to the desktop. He picked it up. ‘It’s cut from the paper,’ he said, passing it to Bobby. ‘It’s your name.’
Bobby slid on a glove and held up the thin slip of newspaper.
FDLE SPECIAL AGENT SUPERVISOR ROBERT DEES
Zo carefully unfolded the cloth canvas. Thick, colorful paint covered one side. He took a step back. ‘What the fuck?’ he snapped in disgust.
‘I told you it was sick!’ Felding piped up, pointing at the picture. ‘I told you! I mean, Jesus Christ!’
Clumsy streaks of yellow colored a happy face T-shirt, indigo blue filled in the skin-tight jeans the model – or whoever she was – was wearing. Seated on what looked like a metal stool, coils of rope dangled from each wrist, just above her outstretched hands. The palms were smeared with streaks of red paint. She was a brunette, with dark waves that spilled over her shoulders, and a long platinum streak that ran down from the center of her head, like the comic book character Alexandra from Josie and the Pussycats.
But it was the face, or lack thereof, that made Bobby’s blood run cold.
The mouth was open and contorted, just like in the disturbing Edward Munch painting, The Scream. Two gaping black holes existed where her eyes should have been, red drops of paint dripped down her cheeks.
Bobby knew what it was right away.
It was a portrait.
‘The paint’s oil based. That much I know,’ Zo remarked.
‘Art major?’ Bobby asked, surprised.
‘Nah. I dabble. Hoping to retire with my paintbrush to a fishing shack and an eccentric life in the Keys one day. Also, until it completely dries, you can smell oil a mile away.’
‘You never really know a person,’ Bobby commented. ‘That makes you more of an expert than me, then. I don’t even color. So, what’s your opinion?’
‘He’s no Picasso, but he’s also no paint-by-numbers novice. My guess is he’s had training. Art school or classes.’
‘We’ll get it to the lab and see if we can get a brand on the paint. Maybe pick up some trace evidence. Same with the newspaper clip and the note.’
Felding sat there looking bewildered. ‘Has this guy done anything? I mean, is this girl real? Is she a real person?’
Bobby stared at the painting. ‘Don’t know, Mr Felding. Hope not.’
‘Do you recognize her? Is she missing?’
‘How the hell can anyone recognize that?’ Zo asked. ‘She has no freaking face. It’s probably just a Halloween nut trying to shake your station down for some air time. The freaks come out in full force this time of year.’
‘Well it’s not going to work. I’m not letting that get on the air,’ Mark replied quietly.
Bobby stared at him. ‘A reporter with a spine and a set of morals? That’s novel.’
‘We get a lot of dements looking for airtime, Agent Dees. You’d be surprised how much garbage we don’t broadcast.’ Mark gestured toward the desk. ‘Even when it is news.’
‘Well, I’m not comfortable with just sitting here and saying it’s nothing,’ Bobby remarked after a minute, turning his attention back to the painting. ‘I want to know it’s nothing. Look behind her, here, Zo. There’s a window, right? You can see the top three towers of what sure as hell looks like the CenTrust building. The blue water of the bay, and this white curve, here? What’s that? A building? The American Airlines arena, maybe? If this is a portrait and the artist painted it as he saw it, including what he saw out the window, then where the hell is he?’
‘He’s gotta be downtown Miami,’ Zo muttered. ‘Real close to the arena. From this angle and height, it looks like he’s on a high floor, which would make him northeast of the CenTrust.’
Bobby thought for a second. ‘The room itself’s a bust. Tan paint. No pictures on the walls. What’s that white thing on the floor behind her?’
‘Looks like a mattress,’ Zo replied.
‘A mattress? So it’s gotta be either an apartment or –’
‘A hotel,’ Zo finished. ‘Hey, isn’t there a Days Inn or Best Western on Biscayne that’s slated to come down one of these days? Close to the arena?’
Bobby nodded and reached for his jacket. ‘It’s the old Regal. It’s been on the demo block now for six months, held up in litigation. It’s about fifteen stories, totally abandoned, and in a shit part of town. In other words, it’s perfect.’
The Regal All-Suites Hotel sat at an odd angle, in an odd part of downtown Miami, wedged in between the massive American Airlines Arena and desolate Bicentennial Park, which probably explained why it was being torn down. Slated to be reinvented as luxury condos, when and if the housing crisis finally abated, the fourteen-storied building was surrounded by temporary chain-link fencing with signs posted NO TRESPASSING – DEMOLITION ZONE every ten feet or so. The recent downturn in the housing market had all but brought an end to new construction, and many builders were stalling to pull permits and begin projects, especially in a city with a glut of overpriced brand-new luxury condominiums.
It took a couple of hours for Bobby to track down somebody with a key and a clue. The property had already been transferred from Regal to the builders, New Bright Construction, and since New Bright was tearing the whole thing down, no one there really cared if they ever opened a door at the property again. But protocol was protocol, and except for a wild guess farmed from a creepy painting, there existed no exigent circumstances that would let them enter the property without either permission or a warrant, and they didn’t have enough for a warrant. As for permission, it would definitely have been easier to wait till morning, when Susie or Barbara or whatever secretary was finally in to answer a phone at New Bright, but Bobby didn’t want to wait that long. He might not have enough for a warrant, but he definitely had a feeling. A feeling that was gonna gnaw at his gut and his thoughts all night anyway, so he might as well get this done tonight, and hope to God he was wrong. If all turned out well, then maybe his brain would give him a break and let him nab a couple of hours of shu
It was almost ten by the time they tracked down an owner and the property manager and got inside the building. They – as in Zo, Bobby and the four officers borrowed from the City of Miami to help execute the search. The Regal’s electricity had been turned off when the security fencing went up, and the first-floor windows had all been boarded to keep out the homeless and the crackheads. The smell of mold and must hit them the second the doors opened on to a pitch-black foyer. Beams from a half-dozen flashlights probed the two-story lobby for signs of life as each cop took in the room, falling on mostly nothing but cockroaches and a few brazen rats that stood their ground for a minute or so before finally scurrying out of sight.
The furniture was gone, the fixtures stripped from the walls. A dumpster full of broken sinks sat where the reception desk had presumably once been. All that was left from the original hotel was the streak of royal red carpet that ran the length of the lobby, from the glass front doors to the bank of elevators, tucked away in a back corner. That’s where Bobby spotted the pile of dirty blankets, empty snack bags, discarded syringes, condom wrappers and a couple of burnt Coke cans on the floor nearby. ‘Jenna is HERE!’ was spray-painted on the wall. A crack den. So much for keeping out the vagrants, he thought uncomfortably, as he shone his flashlight into the empty elevator car that had been propped open with a broken sink, and the bank of numbers that ran up the car’s wall. The hotel had fourteen floors and over two hundred rooms. While there was no telling if this crack campsite was abandoned or fresh, Bobby knew that, just like rats and cockroaches, where there was one, there was usually more …
One of the uniforms flashed his light on a closed door that led to the stairwell, and they started upstairs. Even though the painting looked as though it’d been sketched from a higher floor, for safety, all rooms had to be searched. Fortunately, the property manager had informed them that the electronic door locks were all inoperable due to the lack of electricity. The doors, if closed, were supposed to just open when pushed on.
They went floor-by-floor in teams of two, clearing each room after they entered with a shout-out of ‘Clear!’ followed by the room number searched. Most of the suites had been stripped down to the wallpaper. No carpet, no fixtures, no sinks, no toilets. Pieces of broken furniture, or discarded mattresses had been left behind in others. It was definitely unsettling to walk the dark halls of a shuttered-up, deserted hotel, pushing in doors to see if there were any more unwelcome squatters taking up residence. Or worse – any dead young girls hanging from the ceiling beams, their tethered hands outstretched, their black eyes pleading for help. This part of the city was pretty desolate at night, too, unless there was a Heat game happening next door or a concert going on across the street at Bicentennial Park – neither of which was the case tonight. It made Bobby think of the horror flick, The Shining. As he and Zo went from room to room, checking closets and closed-off bathrooms – a flashlight in one hand and a Glock in the other – he half-expected a deranged maniac to hack his way through a bedroom door to greet them with an ax and a cheery smile.
On thirteen, they spread out in the usual fashion – one team went left around the corner to the end of the hallway, one team went right, eventually working their way back to the stairwell and elevator bay. Bobby and Zo worked the rooms across the hall, on the other side of the building. The ones that faced southwest, toward downtown. In the interior hallways, without a flashlight, it was impossible to see even the hand in front of your face. It would suck to run out of batteries all the way up here.
‘Clear! 1510!’ shouted a team down the north hall. Lopez and Carr.
Bobby went to push on 1522. It didn’t open.
‘Clear! 1540!’ yelled another team. Weiceman and Quin-nones.
Bobby tried the knob. ‘It’s locked,’ he said quietly.
Zo drew his gun up to his chest and nodded, as they both silently moved into position in the hall, flanking the doorframe. Later, Bobby would come to think they probably both knew what they were going to find inside. And if either had spent any time at all thinking about it, neither would have ever wanted to open that door. They’d both been cops long enough to know that certain images, once witnessed, could never be erased from the mind, no matter how much time passed or how hard you tried to forget them.
Bobby nodded back. He could hear the other team from the north hall coming back their way, their gun belts jingling, their heavy shoes clunking on the thin carpet, wondering perhaps why they hadn’t cleared a room yet. With each floor they had climbed, the anxiety had grown. ‘Agent Dias?’ Carr called out. ‘Dees? You guys OK back there? You find something?’ The beams of light from their flashlights danced against the hallway walls.
Bobby sucked in a breath. ‘Police!’ he shouted.
Then he kicked in the door and the screaming began.
‘Body is that of a black-haired, white, female Jane Doe, sixty-three and a half inches tall, approximate weight 110–120 pounds, approximate age between twelve and twenty-one years.’ Gunther Trauss, the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner, spoke softly into an Olympus digital handheld recorder as he circled the body of a young woman splayed out like da Vinci’s Medicine Man on a dirty, white mattress in the center of the stripped room. The black handle of a carving knife protruded from the middle of her yellow happy face T-shirt. Dark blood and other fluids had pooled under her back, seeping into the mattress and spreading out beyond the outline of her body. Pinkish watery fluid leaked from her nose and mouth. Portable 48-watt lighting towers lit the suite like a Hollywood movie set. More towers lined the thirteenth floor and the entire stairwell, where a parade of crime-scene techs, ME assistants and dark blue uniforms trudged continuously up and down thirteen flights of stairs. Down one of the hallways in a far-off room, Bobby could hear Phil Carr, the City of Miami cop who’d helped with the building search. He was still retching.
‘Eye color is …’ Dr Trauss frowned and paused for a moment, ‘unknown. Eyeballs have been removed from their sockets; their location is unknown. Injury appears to be inflicted postmortem. Rigor is resolved. Date and time of death is unknown. Decomposition has begun, right lower abdominal quadrant shows green marbling, skin is slipping. Body is in stage two, putrefaction. Contusions around both ankles and wrists are observed, as are what appear to be ligature burns.’ He looked across the room at his assistant, who was fiddling with the disposable mask that covered his mouth and nose. ‘Sil, get a picture from this angle, please. Also, you and Joe be careful when you bag her, cause she’s slipping and I want to try and get an impression of those rope burns back at the lab. Make sure you get a picture of the butterfly tattoo on her left foot. I don’t want to lose that, either.’
Bobby crouched beside the ME, a rag to his nose. Decomps in Florida were the worst; the smell was horrible. ‘OK, Gunther, what’ve we got?’
‘A dead girl.’
MEs never had a sense of humor at a party. Put them around a dead body and suddenly they think they’re Dane Cook. ‘No shit,’ Bobby replied. ‘You wanna tell me how long she’s been that way?’
Gunther smiled, which in itself was disturbing. It took a different kind of person to be a pathologist. You had to wonder what happened in their childhood. ‘Don’t know,’ he replied. ‘A while. Definitely a day. Maybe longer. I’ll know more in the morning after I’ve done the autopsy. But don’t expect a second hand.’
Gunther looked at Bobby as if he had three heads. He blinked hard and nodded at the body behind him. ‘I won’t know for sure till I do the autopsy, but I’ll venture a guess it probably has something to do with the rather large knife stuck through the middle of her heart. Again, just a guess.’
Bobby sighed. ‘You’re in a fun mood tonight. I wanted to know if you see something else. Drugs? Blunt trauma?’
‘Not yet, but your guy is very theatrical, with the scene he staged all the way up here, and that painting you showed me that he sent you. I wouldn’t be surprise
‘What makes you say that?’
‘The contusions on her ankles and wrists. Some of those have already begun to fade, and that has nothing to do with her dying. She’s been tied up for a while before he killed her.’
Zo walked back in the room then, a jar of Vicks VapoRub in one hand, a sealed evidence bag in the other. His nostrils were slathered in shiny goo. ‘Crime Scene had a jar in the truck. Want some?’
Bobby smeared a gob under his nose.
‘No thanks. The smell doesn’t bother me,’ Gunther replied with another smile.
‘You’re doing a kit, right?’ Zo asked.
‘Of course. Based on the sexually provocative positioning of the body, I won’t be surprised to find she was raped. You have an idea who she is?’
Bobby shook his head. ‘Not yet. There’s nothing outstanding that matches her description.’
‘Maybe she’s a tourist. Welcome to Miami,’ Gunther quipped. ‘That’ll make for some good press. You’ve got a crowd downstairs already, I see.’
‘I don’t have to tell you not to say anything.’
‘No, you don’t. OK, we’re ready, Sil. Bag her hands and feet.’
‘Particularly about her eyes. I don’t want every freak in South Florida trying to claim responsibility,’ Bobby said. ‘Or worse, copycat. I also don’t want a panic.’
‘I’ve worked homicides for twenty years,’ Zo remarked. ‘I’ve seen everything from Colombian neckties to wannabe cannibals, but I never saw this shit before. What’s with the missing peepers?’
Pretty Little Things by Jilliane Hoffman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes