Nightshade, p.17
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       Nightshade, p.17

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  revved the engine when the light turned. “She was Boyd’s sister, all right? Before I knew it, she was like my sister, too, so I couldn’t … think about her that way.”

  She sent him a long, curious look. “Why are you apologizing?”

  “I’m not.” His voice took on a vicious edge, because he realized he was doing just that. “I’m explaining. Though God knows why I’d bother. You think what you want.”

  “All right. I think you’re overreacting to a situation in typical, and predictable, male fashion.” The look he speared at her should have sliced to the bone. She merely smiled. “I don’t hold it against you. Any more than I would hold it against you if you and Natalie had been involved. The past is just that. I know that better than anyone.”

  “I guess you do.” He jammed the gearshift into fourth, then reached out to cover her hand with his. “But we weren’t involved.”

  “I’d have to say that was your loss, pal. She’s terrific.”

  “So are you.”

  She smiled at him. “Yeah, I am.”

  Colt steered to the curb, parking carelessly in a loading zone. He waited while Althea called in their location. “Ready?”

  “I’m always ready.” She stepped out of the car. “I want to play this light,” she told Colt. “Just follow-up questions. We’ve got nothing on him. Nothing. If we push too hard, we’ll lose our chance. If we’re right about this—”

  “We are right. I can feel it.”

  So could she. She nodded. “Then I want him. For Liz. For Wild Bill.” And for herself, she realized. To help her close the door this ordeal had opened again.

  They walked in together and approached Nieman’s apartment. Althea sent Colt one last warning look, then knocked.

  “Yes, yes …” Nieman’s voice came through the door. “What is it?”

  “Lieutenant Grayson, Mr. Nieman.” She held her shield up to the peephole. “Denver PD. We need a few minutes of your time.”

  He pulled open the door to the width of the security chain. His eyes darted from Althea’s face to Colt’s and back again. “Can’t this wait? I’m busy.”

  “I’m afraid not. It shouldn’t take long, Mr. Nieman. Just routine.”

  “Oh, very well.” With a definite lack of grace, he yanked off the chain. “Come in, then.”

  When she did, Althea noted the packing boxes set on the carpet. Many were filled with shredded paper. For Althea, they were as damning as a smoking gun.

  “As you can see, you’ve caught me at a bad time.”

  “Yes, I can see that. Are you moving, Mr. Nieman?”

  “Do you think I would stay here, work here, after this—this scandal?” Obviously insulted, he tugged on his tightly knotted tie. “I think not. Police, reporters, badgering tenants. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since this began.”

  “I’m sure it’s been a trial for you,” Colt stated. He wanted to get his hands on that tie. Nieman would hang nicely from it.

  “It certainly has. Well, I suppose you must sit.” Nieman waved a hand toward chairs. “But I really can’t spare much time. I’ve a great deal of packing left to do. I don’t trust the movers to do it,” he added. “Clumsy, always breaking things.”

  “You’ve had a lot of experience with moving?” This from Althea as she sat and took out her pad and pencil.

  “Naturally. As I’ve explained before, I travel. I enjoy my work.” He smiled by tightening his lips over his teeth. “But I find it tedious to remain in one place for too long. Landlords are always looking for a responsible, experienced manager.”

  “I’m sure they are.” She tapped her pencil against the pad. “The owners of this building …” She began to flip pages.

  “Johnston and Croy, Inc.”

  “Yes.” She nodded when she found the notation. “They were quite upset when they were told about the activities in the penthouse.”

  “I should say.” Nieman hitched up the knees of his trousers and sat. “They’re a respectable company. Quite successful in the West and Southwest. Of course, they blame me. That’s to be expected.”

  “Because you didn’t do a personal interview with the tenant?” Althea prompted.

  “The bottom line in real estate, Lieutenant, is regular monthly rentals and low turnover. I provided that.”

  “You also provided the scene of the crime.”

  “I can hardly be held responsible for the conduct of my tenants.”

  It was time, Althea decided, to take a risk. A calculated one. “And you never entered the premises? Never checked on it?”

  “Why would I? I had no reason to bother Mr. Davis or go into the penthouse.”

  “You never went in while Mr. Davis was in residence?” Althea asked.

  “I’ve just said I didn’t.”

  She frowned, flipped more pages. “How would you explain your fingerprints?”

  Something flickered in Nieman’s eyes, then was gone. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  She was reaching, but she pressed a bit further. “I wondered how you would explain it if I told you that your fingerprints were found inside the penthouse—since you claim never to have entered the premises.”

  “I don’t see …” He was scrambling now. “Oh, yes, I remember now. A few days before … before the incident … the smoke alarm in the penthouse went off. Naturally, I used my passkey to investigate when no one answered my knock.”

  “You had a fire?” Colt asked.

  “No, no, simply a defective smoke detector. It was so minor an incident, I quite forgot it.”

  “Perhaps you’ve forgotten something else,” Althea said politely. “Perhaps you forgot to tell us about a cabin, west of Boulder. Do you manage that property, as well?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t manage any property but this.”

  “Then you just use it for recreation,” Althea continued. “With Mr. Donner, Mr. Kline and Mr. Scott.”

  “I have no knowledge of a cabin,” Nieman said stiffly, but a line of sweat had popped out above his top lip. “Nor do I know any people by those names. Now you’ll have to excuse me.”

  “Mr. Scott isn’t quite up to visitors,” Althea told him, and remained seated. “But we can go downtown and see Kline and Donner. That might refresh your memory.”

  “I’m not going anywhere with you.” Nieman rose then. “I’ve answered all your questions in a reasonable and patient manner. If you persist in this harassment, I’ll have to call my attorney.”

  “Feel free.” Althea gestured toward the phone. “He can meet us at the station. In the meantime, I’d like you to think back to where you were on the night of October 25. You could use an alibi.”

  “Whatever for?”

  “Murder.”

  “That’s preposterous.” He drew a handkerchief out of his breast pocket to wipe his face. “You can’t come in here and accuse me this way.”

  “I’m not accusing you, Mr. Nieman. I’m asking for your whereabouts on October 25, between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. You might also tell your lawyer that we’ll be questioning you about a missing woman known as Lacy, and about the abduction of Elizabeth Cook, who is currently in protective custody. Liz is a very bright and observant girl, isn’t she, Nightshade?”

  “Yeah.” She was amazing, Colt thought. Absolutely amazing. She was cracking Nieman into pieces with nothing but innuendo. “Between Liz and the sketches, the DA has plenty to work with.”

  “I don’t believe we mentioned the sketches to Mr. Nieman.” Althea closed her notebook. “Or the fact that both Kline and Donner were thoroughly interrogated yesterday. Of course, Scott is still critical, so we’ll have to wait for his corroboration.”

  Nieman’s face went pasty. “They’re lying. I’m a respectable man. I have credentials.” His voice cracked. “You can’t prove anything on the word of some two-bit actors.”

  “I don’t believe we mentioned Kline and Donner were actors, did we, Nightshade?”

&n
bsp; “No.” He could have kissed her. “No, we didn’t.”

  “You must be psychic, Nieman,” Althea stated. “Why don’t we go to the station and see what else you can come up with?”

  “I know my rights.” Nieman’s eyes glittered with rage as he felt the trap creaking shut. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

  “I’ll have to insist.” Althea rose. “Go ahead and call your lawyer, Nieman, but you’re coming in for questioning. Now.”

  “No woman’s going to tell me what to do.” Nieman lunged, and though Althea was braced, even eager, Colt stepped between them and merely used one hand to shove Nieman back onto the couch.

  “Assaulting an officer,” he said mildly. “I guess we’ll take him in on that. It should give you enough time to get a search warrant.”

  “More than enough,” she agreed. She took out her cuffs.

  “Ah, Lieutenant …” Colt watched as she competently secured Nieman’s skinny wrists. “They didn’t find prints upstairs, did they?”

  “I never said they did.” She tossed her hair back. “I simply asked what he’d say if I said they were found.”

  “I was wrong,” he decided. “I do like your style.”

  “Thanks.” Satisfied, she smiled. “I wonder what we might find in all these neatly packed boxes.”

  * * *

  They found more than enough. Tapes, snapshots, even a detailed journal in Nieman’s own hand. It painstakingly recorded all his activities, all his thoughts, all his hatred for women. It described how the woman named Lacy had been murdered, and how her body had been buried behind the cabin.

  By that afternoon, he had been booked on enough charges to keep him away from society for a lifetime.

  “A little anticlimactic,” Colt commented as he followed Althea into her office, where she would type up her report. “He was so revolting, I couldn’t even drum up the energy to kill him.”

  “Lucky for you.” She sat, booted up her machine. “Listen, if it’s any consolation, I believe he was telling the truth about not touching Liz himself. I’m betting the psychiatric profile bears it out. Impotence, accompanied by rage against women and voyeuristic tendencies.”

  “Yeah, he just likes to watch.” His fury came and went. Althea had been right about not being able to change what had been.

  “And to make piles of money from his hobby,” she added. “Once he rounded up his cameraman and a couple of sleazy actors, he went into the business of pandering to others with his peculiar tastes. Got to give him credit. He kept a very precise set of books on his porn business. Kept him in antiques and silk ties.”

  “He won’t need either one in a cell.” He rested his hands on her shoulders. “You did good, Thea. Real good.”

  “I usually do.” She glanced over her shoulder to study him. Now all she had to do was figure out what to do about Colt. “Listen, Nightshade, I really want to get this paperwork moving, and then I need some downtime. Okay?”

  “Sure. I hear there’s going to be some spread at the Fletchers’ tonight. Are you up for it?”

  “You bet. Why don’t I meet you there?”

  “All right.” He leaned down to press his lips to her hair. “I love you, Thea.”

  She waited until he left, shutting her door behind him. I know, she thought, I love you, too.

  * * *

  She went to see Liz. It helped to be able to give the girl and her family some sort of resolution. Colt had beaten her to it, had already come and gone. But Althea sensed that Liz needed to hear it from her, as well.

  “We’ll never be able to repay you.” Marleen stood with her arm around Liz as if she couldn’t bear not to touch her daughter. “I don’t have the words to tell you how grateful we are.”

  “I—” She’d almost said she’d just been doing her job. It was the truth, but it wasn’t all of it. “Just take care of each other,” she said instead.

  “We’re going to spend a lot more time doing just that.” Marleen pressed her cheek against Liz’s. “We’re going home tomorrow.”

  “We’re going into family counseling,” Liz told Althea. “And I—I’m going to join a rape victims’ support group. I’m a little scared.”

  “It’s all right to be scared.”

  Nodding, Liz looked at her mother. “Mom, can I—I just want to talk to Lieutenant Grayson for a minute.”

  “Sure.” Marleen clung for a final moment. “I’ll just go down to the lobby, help your father when he gets back with that ice cream.”

  “Thanks.” Liz waited until her mother left the room. “Dad doesn’t know how to talk about what happened to me yet. It’s awful hard on him.”

  “He loves you. Give him time.”

  “He cried.” Liz’s own eyes filled with tears. “I never saw him cry before. I thought he was too busy with work and stuff to care. I was stupid to run away.” Once she’d blurted it out, she exhaled deeply. “I didn’t think they understood me, or what I wanted. Now I see how bad I hurt them. It won’t ever be exactly the same again, will it?”

  “No, Liz, it won’t. But if you help each other through it, it can be better.”

  “I hope so. I still feel so empty inside. Like a part of me’s not there anymore.”

  “You’ll fill it with something else. You can’t let this block off your feelings for other people. It can make you strong, Liz, but you don’t want it to make you hard.”

  “Colt said—” She sniffled and reached for the box of tissues her mother had left on the coffee table. “He said whenever I felt like I couldn’t make it, I should think of you.”

  Althea stared. “Of me?”

  “Because you’d had something horrible happen to you, and you’d used it to make yourself beautiful. Inside and out. That you hadn’t just survived, you’d triumphed.” She gave a watery smile. “And I could, too. It was funny to hear him talk that way. I guess he must like you a lot.”

  “I like him, too.” And she did, Althea realized. It wasn’t a weakness to love someone, not when you could admire and respect him at the same time. Not when he saw exactly what you were, and loved you back.

  “Colt’s the best,” Liz stated. “He never lets you down, you know? No matter what.”

  “I think I do.”

  “I was wondering … I know the counseling’s important, and everything, but I wonder if I could just call you sometimes. When I—when I don’t think I can get through it.”

  “I hope you will.” Althea rose to go over and sit beside Liz. She opened her arms. “You call when you’re feeling bad. And when you’re feeling good. We all need somebody who understands us.”

  Fifteen minutes later, Althea left the Cooks to their ice cream and their privacy. She decided she had a lot of thinking to do. She’d always known where her life was going. Now that it had taken this sudden and dramatic detour, she needed to get her bearings again.

  But Colt was waiting for her in the lobby.

  “Hey, Lieutenant.” He tipped her head back and kissed her lightly.

  “What are you doing here? Marleen said you’d been by already.”

  “I went with Frank. He needed to talk.”

  She touched a hand to his cheek. “You’re a good friend, Nightshade.”

  “It’s the only kind of friend there is.” She smiled, because she knew he meant it. “Want a lift?”

  “I’ve got my car.” But when they walked outside together, she discovered she didn’t want that downtime alone after all. “Look, do you want to take a walk or something? I’m wired.”

  “Sure.” He draped an arm casually over her shoulder. “You can help me scope out some of the shop windows. My mother has a birthday next week.”

  Resistance surged instantly—a knee-jerk response. “I’m no good at picking out presents for people I don’t know.”

  “You’ll get to know her.” He strolled to the corner and turned left, heading toward a row of downtown shops. He glanced in one window at an elegant display of fine china and crystal. “Hey,
you’re not the type who, like, registers a pattern and that stuff, are you? You know, for wedding presents?”

  “Get a grip.” She moved past him so that he had to lengthen his stride to catch up.

  “What about a trousseau? Do women still do that?”

  “I haven’t any idea, or any interest.”

  “It’s not that I mind the T-shirt you wore in bed last night. I was just thinking that something a little more … no, a little less, would be nice for the honeymoon. Where do you want to go?”

  “Are you going to cut this out?”

  “No.”

  With an impatient breath, she turned and stared at the next window. “That’s a nice sweater.” She pointed to a rich blue cowl-neck on a mannequin. “Maybe she’d go for cashmere.”

  “Maybe.” He nodded. “Fine. Let’s go get it.”

  “See, that’s your problem.” Althea whirled around, hands on hips. “You don’t give anything enough thought. You look at one thing, and boom—that’s it.”

  “When it’s the right thing, why look around?” He smiled and tugged on her hair. “I know what works for me when I see it. Come on.” He took her hand and pulled her into the shop. “The blue sweater in the window?” he said to the clerk. “Have you got it in a size …” He measured in the air with his hands.

  “Ten?” the clerk guessed. “Certainly, sir. Just one moment.”

  “You didn’t ask how much it cost,” Althea pointed out.

  “When something’s right, cost is irrelevant.” He turned to smile at her. “You’re going to keep me in line. I appreciate that. I tend to let details slip.”

  “There’s news.” She stepped away to poke through a rack of silk blouses.

  He was careless, Althea reminded herself. He was impulsive and rash and quick on the draw. All the things she was not. She preferred order, routine, meticulous calculation. She had to be crazy to think they could mesh.

  She turned her head, watching him as he waited for the clerk to ring up the sweater and gift wrap it.

  But they did mesh, she realized. Everything about him fitted her like a glove. The hair wasn’t really blond or brown and was never quite disciplined. The eyes, caught somewhere between blue and green, that could stop her heart with one look. His recklessness. His dependability.

  His total and unconditional understanding.

  “Problem?” he asked when he caught her staring.

  “No.”

  “Would you like a pink bow, sir, or blue?”

  “Pink,” he said, without glancing back. “Do you have any wedding dresses in here?”

  “Not formal ones, no, sir.” But the clerk’s eyes lit up at the prospect of another sale. “We do have some very elegant tea gowns and cocktail suits that would be perfect for a wedding.”

  “It should be something festive,” he decided, and the humor was back in his eyes. “For New Year’s Eve.”

  Althea straightened her shoulders, turned on her heel to face him. “Get this, Nightshade. I am not marrying you on New Year’s Eve.”

  “Okay, okay. Pick another date.”

  “Thanksgiving,” she told him, and had the pleasure of watching his mouth fall open as he dropped the box the clerk had handed him.

  “What?”

  “I said Thanksgiving. Take it or leave it.” She tossed her hair back and strode out the door.

  “Wait! Damn!” He started after her, kicked the gift box halfway across the room. The clerk called after him as he scooped it up on the run.

  “Sir, the dresses?”

  “Later.” He swung through the door and caught up with Althea halfway down the
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