Nightshade, p.6
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       Nightshade, p.6

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  out some good pieces, too.” Her bright eyes scanned her living room. “I like furniture. There was this Belker table I’d have liked to get my hands on. Don’t know where I’d put it, but I always find room.”

  “Could you describe any of the movers?”

  “Don’t notice men unless there’s something special about them.” She winked slyly.

  “How about Mr. Davis? Did you ever see him?”

  “Can’t say for sure. I don’t know most of the people in the building by name. Me and my cats keep to ourselves. What did he do?”

  “We’re looking into it.”

  “Playing it close to the vest, huh? Well, Bogey would’ve done the same. So, he’s moved out?”

  “It looks that way.”

  “I guess I won’t be able to give him his package, then.”

  “Package?”

  “Just came yesterday. Messenger brought it, dropped it here by mistake. Davis, Mavis …” She shook her head. “People don’t pay enough attention to details these days.”

  “I know what you mean.” Colt cautiously plucked a cat from his shoulder. “What sort of a package, Miss Mavis?”

  “A package package.” With a few grunts and whistles, she hauled herself to her feet. “Put it back in the bedroom. Meant to take it up to him today.” She moved with a kind of tanklike grace through the narrow passages between the furniture and came back with a sealed, padded bag.

  “Ma’am, I’d like to take that with me. If you have a problem with that, you can call Captain Boyd Fletcher, Denver PD.”

  “No skin off my nose.” She handed Colt the package. “Maybe when you’ve cracked the case, you’ll come let me know what’s what.”

  “I’ll do just that.” On impulse, he took out the photo of Liz. “Have you seen this girl?”

  Miss Mavis looked at it, frowned over it, then shook her head. “No, not that I recollect. Is she in trouble?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Does it have something to do with upstairs?”

  “I think so.”

  She handed the photo back. “She’s a pretty little thing. I hope you find her real soon.”

  “So do I.”

  * * *

  It wasn’t his usual operating procedure. Colt couldn’t have said why he made the exception, why he felt he had to. Instead of opening the package and dealing with its contents immediately, he left it sealed and drove to the courthouse.

  He was just in time to hear the defense’s cross of Althea. She was dressed in a rust-colored suit that should have been dull. Instead, the effect was subtly powerful, with her vibrant hair twisted up off her neck and a single strand of pearls at her throat.

  Colt took a seat at the back of the courtroom and watched as she competently, patiently and devastatingly ripped the defense to shreds. She never raised her voice, never stumbled over words. Anyone looking or listening, including the jury, would have judged her a cool, detached professional.

  And so she was, Colt mused as he stretched out his legs and waited. Certainly no one watching her now would imagine her flaming like a rocket in a man’s arms. His arms.

  No one would picture this tidy, controlled woman arching and straining as a man’s hands—his hands—raced over her.

  But he was damned if he could forget it.

  And studying her now, when she was unaware of him and completely focused on the job at hand, he began to notice other things, little things.

  She was tired. He could see it in her eyes. Now and again there was the faintest whisper of impatience in her voice as she was called on to repeat herself. She shifted, crossing her legs. It was a smooth movement, economical, as always. But he sensed something else beneath it. Not nerves, he realized. Restlessness. She wanted this over with.

  When the cross was complete, the judge called for a fifteen-minute recess. She winced as the gavel struck. It was just a flicker of a movement across her face, but he caught it.

  Jack Holmsby caught her arm before she could move by him. “Nice job, Thea.”

  “Thanks. You shouldn’t have any trouble nailing him.”

  “I’m not worried about it.” He shifted, just enough to block her path. “Listen, I’m sorry things didn’t work out the other night. Why don’t we give it another shot? Say, dinner tomorrow night, just you and me?”

  She waited a beat, not so much amazed by his gall as fatigued by it. “Jack, do the words no way in hell have any meaning for you?”

  He only laughed and gave her arm an intimate little squeeze. For one wild moment, she considered decking him and taking the rap for assault.

  “Come on, Althea. I’d like a chance to make it up to you.”

  “Jack, we both know you’d like a chance to make me. And it isn’t going to happen. Now let go of my arm while we’re both on the same side of the law.”

  “There’s no need to be—”

  “Lieutenant?” Colt drawled out the word. He let his gaze sweep over Holmsby. “Got a minute?”

  “Nightshade.” It annoyed the hell out of her that he’d witnessed the little tussle. “Excuse me, Jack. I’ve got work to do.”

  She strode out of the courtroom, leaving Colt to follow. “If you’ve got something that’s worth my time, spill it,” she ordered. “I’m not real pleased with lawyers at the moment.”

  “Darling, I don’t have any briefs with me—except the ones I’m wearing.”

  “You’re a riot, Nightshade.”

  “You look like a lady who could use a laugh.” He took her arm, and felt his own temper peak when she stiffened. Battling it down, he steered her toward the doors. “My car’s out front. Why don’t we take a ride while we catch up?”

  “Fine. I walked over from the precinct. You can take me back.”

  “Right.” He found another ticket on his windshield. Not surprising, since he’d parked in a restricted zone. He pocketed it, and climbed in. “Sorry I interrupted your mating ritual.”

  “Kiss my butt.” She snapped her seat belt into place.

  “Lieutenant, I’ve been dreaming of doing just that.” Reaching over, he popped open the glove compartment. This time she didn’t stiffen at the contact, only seemed to withdraw. “Here.”

  “What?” She glanced down at the bottle of aspirin.

  “For your headache.”

  “I’m fine.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, she thought. What she had couldn’t be termed a mere headache. It was more like a freight train highballing behind her eyes.

  “I hate a martyr.”

  “Leave me alone.” She closed her eyes and effectively cut him off.

  She was far from fine. She hadn’t slept. Over the years, she’d become accustomed to rolling on two or three hours a night. But last night she hadn’t slept at all, and she was too proud to lay the blame where it belonged. Right at Colt’s door.

  She’d thought of him. And she’d berated herself. She’d run over the impossible scene in the penthouse, and she’d ached. Then she’d berated herself again. She’d tried a hot bath, a boring book, yoga, warm brandy. Nothing had done the trick.

  So she’d tossed and turned, and eventually she’d crawled out of bed to roam restlessly through her apartment. And she’d watched the sun come up.

  Since dawn, she’d worked. It was now slightly past one, and she’d been on the job for nearly eight hours without a break. And what made it worse, what made it next to intolerable, was that she could very well be stuck with Colt for another eight.

  She opened her eyes again when he stopped with a jerk of brakes. They were parked in front of a convenience store.

  “I need something,” he muttered, and slammed out.

  Fine, terrific, she thought, and shut her eyes again. Don’t bother to ask if maybe I need something. Like a chain saw to slice off my head, for instance.

  She heard him coming back. Odd, she mused, that she recognized the sound of his stride, the click of his boot heels, after so short a time. In defense, or simply out of obstinacy, she kept her
eyes shut.

  “Here.” He pushed something against her hand. “Tea,” he told her when she opened her eyes to stare down at the paper cup. “To wash down the aspirin.” He popped the top on the bottle himself and shook out the medication. “Now take the damn pills, Althea. And eat this. You probably haven’t eaten anything all day, unless it’s chocolate bits or candied nuts. I’ve never seen a woman pick her way through a pound bag of candy the way you do.”

  “Sugar’s loaded with energy.” But she took the pills, and the tea. The package of cheese and crackers earned a frown. “Didn’t they have any cupcakes?”

  “You need protein.”

  “There’s probably protein in cupcakes.” The tea was too strong, and quite bitter, but it helped nonetheless. “Thanks.” She sipped again, then broke down and opened the package of crackers. It was important to remember that she was responsible for her own actions, her own reactions and her own emotions. If she hadn’t slept, it was her own problem. “The lab boys should have finished at the penthouse by now.”

  “They have. I’ve been there.”

  She muttered over a mouthful, “I’d rather you didn’t go off on your own.”

  “I can’t please everybody, so I please myself. I talked to the little weasel who manages the place. He never set eyes on the top-floor tenant.”

  While Althea chewed her way through the impromptu meal, he filled her in.

  “I knew about Davis,” she told him when he finished. “I got Nieman out of bed this morning. Already called the references. Phone disconnect on both. There is no Foxx Engineering at that address, or at any other address in Denver. Same for the apartment Davis used as a reference. Mr. and Mrs. Ellison, the former tenants, have never heard of him.”

  “You’ve been busy.” Watching her, he tapped a finger on the steering wheel. “What was that you meant about not going off on your own?”

  She smiled a little. The headache was backing off. “I carry a badge,” she said, deadpan. “You don’t.”

  “Your badge didn’t get you into Miss Mavis’s apartment.”

  “Should it have?”

  “I think so.” Darkly pleased to be one up on her, Colt reached into the back and showed Althea the package. “Messenger delivered it to the cat lady by mistake.”

  “Cat lady?”

  “You had to be there. Uh-uh.” He snatched it out of reach as she made a move toward it. “My take, darling. I’m willing to share.”

  Her temper spiked, then leveled off when she noticed that the package was still intact. “It’s still sealed.”

  “Seemed fair,” he said, meeting her eyes. “I figured we should open it together.”

  “Looks like you figured right this time. Let’s have a look.”

  Colt reached down and drew a knife out of his boot. As he slit open the package, Althea narrowed her eyes.

  “I don’t think that toy’s under the legal limit, champ.”

  “Nope,” he said easily, and slid the knife back into his boot. Reaching into the package, he pulled out a videotape and a single sheet of paper.

  Final edit. Okay for dupes? Heavy snows expected by weekend. Supplies good. Next drop send extra tapes and beer. Roads may be closed.

  Althea held the sheet by a corner, then dug a plastic bag out of her purse. “We’ll have it checked for prints. We could get lucky.”

  “It might tell us who. It won’t tell us where.” Colt slid the tape back into the bag. “Want to go to the movies?”

  “Yeah.” Althea set the bag on her lap, tapped it. “But I think this one calls for a private screening. I’ve got a VCR at home.”

  * * *

  She also had a comfortable couch crowded with cushy pillows. Gleaming hardwood floors were accented by Navajo rugs. The art deco prints on the walls should have been at odds with the southwestern touches, but they weren’t. Neither were the homey huddle of lush green plants on the curvy iron tea cart, the two goldfish swimming in a tube-shaped aquarium, or the footstool fashioned to resemble a squat, grinning gnome.

  “Interesting place” was the best Colt could do.

  “It does the job.” She walked to a chrome-and-glass entertainment center, stepping out of her shoes on the way.

  Colt decided that single gesture told him more about Althea Grayson than a dozen in-depth reports would have.

  With her usual efficiency, she popped in the tape and flicked both the VCR and TV on.

  There was no need to fast-forward past the FBI warning, because there wasn’t one. After a five-second lag, the tape faded from gray.

  And the show began.

  Even for a man with Colt’s experience, it was a surprise. He tucked his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. It was foolish, he supposed, seeing as they were both adults, both professionals, but he felt an undeniable tug of embarrassment.

  “I, ah, guess they don’t believe in whetting the audience’s appetite.”

  Althea tilted her head, studying the screen with a clinical detachment. It wasn’t lovemaking. It wasn’t even sex, according to her definition. It was straight porn, more pathetic than titillating.

  “I’ve seen hotter stuff at bachelor parties.”

  Colt took his eyes from the screen long enough to arch a brow at her. “Oh, really?”

  “Tape’s surprisingly good quality. And the camera work, if you can call it that, seems pretty professional.” She listened to the moans. “Sound, too.” She nodded as the camera pulled back for a long shot. “Not the penthouse.”

  “Must be the place in the mountains. High-class rustic, from the paneling. Bed looks like a Chippendale.”

  “How do you know?”

  “My mother’s big on antiques. Look at the lamp by the bed. It’s Tiffany, or a damn fine imitation. Ah, the plot thickens… .”

  They both watched as another woman walked into the frame. A few lines of dialogue indicated that she had come upon her lover and her best friend. The confrontation turned violent.

  “I don’t think that’s fake blood.” Althea hissed through her teeth as the first woman took a hard blow to the face. “And I don’t think she was expecting that punch.”

  Colt swore softly as the rest of the scene unfolded. The mixture of sex and violence—violence that was focused on the women—made an ugly picture. He had to clench his fists to keep himself from slamming the television off.

  It was no longer a matter of amused embarrassment. It was a matter of revulsion.

  “You handling this, Nightshade?” Althea laid a hand on his arm. They both knew what he feared most—that Liz would come on-screen.

  “I don’t guess I’ll be wanting any popcorn.”

  Instinctively Althea left her hand where it was and moved closer.

  There was a plot of sorts, and she began to follow it. A weekend at a ski chalet, two couples who mixed and mingled in several ways. She moved beyond that, picking up the details. The furnishings. Colt had been right—they were first-class. Different camera angles showed that it was a two-story with an open loft and high beamed ceilings. Stone fireplace, hot tub.

  In a few artistic shots, she saw that it was snowing lightly. She caught glimpses of trees and snowcapped peaks. In one outdoor scene that must have been more than uncomfortable for the actors, she noted that there was no other house or structure close by.

  The tape ended without credits. And without Liz. Colt didn’t know whether he was relieved or not.

  “I don’t think it’s got much of a shot in the Oscar race.” Althea kept her voice light as she rewound the tape. “You okay?”

  He wasn’t okay. There was a burning in his gut that needed some sort of release. “They were rough on the women,” he said carefully. “Really vicious.”

  “Offhand, I’d say the main customers for this kind of thing would be guys who fantasize about dominance—physical and emotional.”

  “I don’t think you can apply the word fantasy in conjunction with something like this.”

  “Not all fant
asies are pretty,” she murmured, thinking. “You know, the quality was good, but some of the acting—and I use the term loosely—was downright pitiful. Could be they let some of their clients live out those fantasies on film.”

  “Lovely.” He took one careful, cleansing breath. “Jade’s letter mentioned that she thought one of the girls had been killed. Looks like she might have been right.”

  “Sadism’s a peculiar sexual tool—and one that can often get out of hand. We might be able to make the general area from the outside shots.”

  She started to eject the tape, but he whirled her around. “How can you be so damn clinical? Didn’t that get to you? Doesn’t anything?”

  “Whatever does, I deal with it. Let’s leave personalities out of this.”

  “No. It goes back to knowing who you’re working with. We’re talking about the fact that some girl might have been killed for the camera.” There was a fury in him that he couldn’t control, and a terrible need to vent it. “We’ve just seen two women slapped, shoved, punched, and threatened with worse. I want to know what watching that did to you.”

  “It made me sick,” she snapped back, jerking away. “And it made me angry. And if I’d let myself, it would have made me sad. But all that matters, all that really matters, is that we have our first piece of hard evidence.” She snatched out the tape and replaced it in its bag. “Now, if you want to do me a favor, you’ll drop me back at the precinct so that I can turn this over. Then you can give me some space.”

  “Sure, Lieutenant.” He strode to the door to yank it open. “I’ll give you all the space you need.”

  Chapter 5

  Colt was holding three ladies. And he thought it was really too bad that the lady he wanted was sitting across the table from him, upping his bet.

  “There’s your twenty-five, Nightshade, and twenty-five more.” Althea tossed chips into the kitty. She held her cards close to her vest, like her thoughts.

  “Ah, well …” Sweeney heaved a sigh and studied the trash in his hand as if wishing alone might turn it to gold. “Too rich for my blood.”

  From her seat between Sweeney and a forensic pathologist named Louie, Cilla considered her pair of fives. “What do you think, Deadeye?”

  Keenan, dressed for bed in a Denver Nuggets jersey, bounced on her lap. “Throw the money in.”

  “Easy for you to say.” But her chips clattered onto the pile.

  After a personal debate that included a great deal of muttering, shifting and head shaking, Louie tossed in his chips, as well.

  “I’ll see your twenty-five,” Colt drawled. He kept his cigar clamped between his teeth as he counted out chips. “And bump it again.”

  Boyd just grinned, pleased that he’d folded after the draw. The bet made the rounds again, with only Althea, Cilla and Colt remaining in.

  “Three pretty queens,” he announced, and laid down his cards.

  Althea’s eyes glinted when they met his. “Nice. But we don’t have room for them in my full house.” She spread her cards, revealing three eights and a pair of deuces.

  “That puts my two fives to shame.” Cilla sighed as Althea raked in the pot. “Okay, kid, you cost me seventy-five cents. Now you have to die.” She hauled a giggling Keenan up as she rose.

 
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