Blood price, p.1
Part #1 of Vicki Nelson series by Tanya Huff
Ian shoved his hands deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. His hands were freezing, he was in a bitch of a bad mood, and he had no idea why he'd agreed to meet Coreen at her apartment. All things considered, neutral ground might have been a better idea. He shifted his scowl to the LED clock hanging from the ceiling. 12:17. Thirteen minutes to get from Eglinton West to Wilson Station, six blocks worth of bus ride, and then a three block run to Coreen's. It couldn't be done.
I'm going to be late. She's going to be pissed. And there goes our chance to make up. He sighed. It had taken two hours of arguing on the phone to get her to agree to a meeting. Maintaining a relationship with Coreen might be time-consuming, but it sure as hell wasn't boring. Lord, but the woman had a temper. . . . His lips curled up into a smile almost without him willing the motion; the flip side of that temper made all the effort of staying on the roller coaster worthwhile. The smile broadened. Coreen packed a lot of punch for a woman barely five foot two.
He glanced up at the clock again.
Where the hell was the train?
Be there by 12:30 or forget it, she'd said, completely ignoring the fact that on Sunday the Toronto Transit Commission, the ubiquitous TTC, drastically cut back on the number of trains and at this hour he'd be lucky to get the last one they ran.
Looking at the bright side, when he finally got there, given the time of night and the fact that they both had an eight o'clock class, he'd have to stay over. He sighed. If she'll even let me into her apartment.
He wandered down to the southernmost end of the platform and peered into the tunnel. No sign of lights, but he could feel wind against his face and that usually meant the train wasn't far. He coughed as he turned away. It smelled like something had died down there; smelled like it did at the cottage when a mouse got between the walls and rotted.
"Big mother of a mouse," he muttered, rubbing his fist against his nose. The stench caught in his lungs and he coughed again. It was funny the tricks the mind played; now that he was aware of it, the smell seemed to be getting stronger.
And then he heard what could only be footsteps coming up the tunnel, out of the darkness. Heavy footsteps, not at all like a worker hurrying to beat the train after a day's overtime, nor like a bum staggering for the safety of the platform. Heavy footsteps, purposefully advancing toward his back.
Ian gloried in the sharp terror that started his heart thudding in his chest and trapped his breath in his throat. He knew very well that when he turned, when he looked, the explanation would be prosaic, so he froze and enjoyed the unknown while it remained unknown, delighted in the adrenaline rush of fear that made every sense more alive and made the seconds stretch to hours.
He didn't turn until the footsteps moved up the half dozen cement stairs and onto the platform.
Then it was too late.
He almost didn't have time to scream.
Tucking her chin down into her coat-it might be April but it was still damp and cold, with no sign of spring- Vicki Nelson stepped off the Eglinton bus and into the subway station.
"Well, that was a disaster," she muttered. The elderly gentleman who had exited the bus right behind her made an inquiring noise. She turned a bland stare in his general direction, then picked up her pace. So I'm not only "lousy company, and so uptight I squeak," but I also talk to myself. She sighed. Lawrence was pretty, but he wasn't her type. She hadn't met a man" who was her type since she'd left the police force eight months before. I should've known this was going to happen when I agreed to go out with a man significantly better looking than I am. I don't know why I accepted the invitation.
That wasn't exactly true; she'd accepted the invitation because she was lonely. She knew it, she just had no intention of admitting it.
She was halfway down the first set of stairs leading to the southbound platform when she heard the scream. Or rather the half-scream. It choked off in mid-wail. One leap took her to the first landing. From where she stood, she could see only half of each platform through the glass and no indication of which side the trouble was on. The south was closer, faster.
Bounding down two, and then three steps at a time she yelled, "Call the police!" Even if no one heard her, it might scare off the cause of the scream.
Nine years on the force and she'd never used her gun. She wanted it now. In nine years on the force she'd never heard a scream like that.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" the more rational part of her brain shrieked. "You don't have a weapon! You don't have backup! You don't have any idea of what's going on down there! Eight months off the force and you've forgotten everything they ever taught you! What the hell are you trying to prove ?"
Vicki ignored the voice and kept moving. Maybe she was trying to prove something. So what.
When she exploded out onto the platform, she immediately realized she'd chosen the wrong side and for just an instant, she was glad of it.
A great spray of blood arced up the orange tiles of the station wall, feathering out from a thick red stream to a delicate pattern of crimson drops. On the floor below, his eyes and mouth open above the mangled ruin of his throat, lay a young man. No: the body of a young man.
The dinner she'd so recently eaten rose to the back of Vicki's throat, but walls built during the investigations of other deaths slammed into place and she forced it down.
The wind in the tunnel began to pick up and she could hear the northbound train approaching. It sounded close.
Sweet Jesus, that's all we need. At 12:35 on a Sunday night it was entirely possible that the train would be nearly empty, no one would get off, and no one would notice the corpse and the blood-spattered wall down at the southernmost end of the northbound platform. Given the way of the world, however, it was more likely that a group of children and a little old lady with a weak heart would pile out of the last carriage and come face-to-face with the staring eyes and mutely screaming mouth of a fresh corpse.
Only one solution presented itself.
The roar of the train filled the station as, heart pounding and adrenaline singing in her ears, Vicki leapt down onto the southbound tracks. The wooden step over the live rail was too far away, almost centered in the line of concrete pillars, so she jumped, trying not to think of the however many million volts of electricity the thing carried turning her to charcoal. She tottered for a moment on the edge of the divider, cursing her full-length coat and wishing she'd worn a jacket, and then, although she knew it was the stupidest thing she could do, she looked toward the oncoming train.
How did it get so close? The light was blinding, the roar deafening. She froze, caught in the glare, sure that if she continued she'd fall and the metal wheels of the beast would cut her to shreds.
Then something man-height flickered across the northbound tunnel. She didn't see much, just a billowing shadow, black against the growing headlight, but it jerked her out of immobility and down onto the track.
Cinders crunched under her boots, metal rang, then she had her hands on the edge of the platform and was flinging herself into the air. The world filled with sound and light and something brushed lightly against her sole.
Her hands were sticky, covered with blood, but it wasn't hers and at the moment that was all that mattered.
Before the train stopped, she'd flung her coat over the body and grabbed her ID.
The center-man stuck his head out.
Vicki flipped the leather folder in his direction and barked, "Close the doors! Now!"
The doors, not quite open, closed.
She remembered to breathe again and when the center-man's head reappeared, snapped, "Have the driver g
She moved a little farther from the body. Up close, the smell of blood and urine-the front of the boy's jeans was soaked-easily overcame the metallic odors of the subway. A lone face peered out through the window of the closest car. She snarled at it and settled down to wait.
Less than three minutes later, Vicki heard the faint sound of sirens up on the street. She almost cheered. It had been the longest three minutes of her life.
She'd spent them thinking, adding together the spray of blood and the position of the body and not liking the total.
Nothing that she knew of could strike a single blow strong enough to tear through flesh like tissue paper and fast enough that the victim had no time to struggle. Nothing. But something had.
And it was down in the tunnels.
She twisted until she could see into the darkness beyond the end of the train. The hair on the back of her neck rose. What did the shadows hide, she wondered. Her skin crawled, not entirely because of the cold. She'd never considered herself an overly imaginative woman and she knew the killer had to be long gone, but something lingered in that tunnel.
The distinctive slam of police boots against tile brought her around, hands held carefully out from her sides. Police called to a violent murder, finding someone covered in blood standing over the body, could be excused if they jumped to a conclusion or two.
The situation got chaotic for a few minutes, but fortunately four of the six constables had heard of "Victory" Nelson and after apologies had been exchanged all around, they got to work.
". . . my coat over the body, had the driver call the police, and waited. " Vicki watched Police Constable West scribbling madly in his occurrence book and hid a grin. She could remember being that young and that intense. Barely. When he looked up, she nodded at the body and asked, "Do you want to see?"
"Uh, no!" After a second he added, a little sheepishly, "That is, we shouldn't disturb anything before homicide gets here. "
Homicide. Vicki's stomach lurched and her mood nosedived. She'd forgotten she wasn't in charge. Forgotten she was nothing more than a witness-first on the scene and that only because she'd done some pretty stupid things to get there. The uniforms had made it seem like old times but homicide. . . her department. No, not hers any longer. She pushed her glasses up her nose with the back of her wrist.
PC West, caught staring, dropped his gaze in confusion. "Uh, I don't think anyone would mind if you cleaned the blood off your hands. "
"Thanks. " Vicki managed a smile but ignored the unasked question. How well she could see, or how little she could see, was nobody's business but hers. Let another round of rumors start making its way through the force. "If you wouldn't mind grabbing a couple of tissues out of my bag. . . "
The young constable dipped a tentative hand into the huge black leather purse and actually looked relieved when he removed it holding the tissue and still in possession of all his fingers. Vicki's bag had been legendary throughout Metro and the boroughs.
Most of the blood on her hands had dried to reddish brown flakes and the little that hadn't the tissue merely smeared around. She scrubbed at it anyway, feeling rather like Lady MacBeth.
"Destroying the evidence?"
Celluci, she thought. They had to send Celluci. That bastard always walked too quietly. She and Mike Celluci had not parted on the best of terms but, by the time she turned to face him, she managed to school her expression.
"Just trying to make life more difficult for you. " The voice and the smile that went with it were patently false.
He nodded, an overly long curl of dark brown hair falling into his face. "Always the best idea to play to your strengths. " Then his eyes went past her to the body. "Give your statement to Dave. " Behind him, his partner waved two fingers. "I'll talk to you later. This your coat?"
"Yeah, it's mine. " Vicki watched him lift the edge of the blood-soaked fabric and knew that for the moment nothing existed for him but the body and its immediate surroundings. Although their methods differed, he was as intense in the performance of his duties as she was- had been, she corrected herself silently-and the undeclared competition between them had added an edge to many an investigation. Including a number neither of them were on.
She unclenched her jaw and, still scrubbing at her hands, followed Dave Graham a few meters up the platform.
Dave, who had been partnered with Mike Celluci for only a month when Vicki left the force and the final screaming match had occurred, smiled a little self-consciously and said, "How about we just do this by the book?"
Vicki released a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. "Sure, that'd be fine. " Taking refuge from emotions in police procedure-a worldwide law enforcement tradition.
While they talked, the subway train, now empty of passengers, pulled slowly out of the station.
". . . responding to the scream you ran down onto the southbound platform, then crossed the tracks in front of a northbound train to reach the body. While crossing the tracks . . . "
Inwardly, Vicki cringed. Dave Graham was one of the least judgmental men in existence, but even he couldn't keep his opinion of that stunt from showing in his voice.
". . . you saw a man-shaped form in what appeared to be a loose, flowing garment cross between you and the lights. Is that it?"
"Essentially. " Stripped of all the carefully recorded details, it sounded like such a stupid thing to have done.
"Right. " He closed the notebook and scratched at the side of his nose. "You, uh, going to stick around?"
Vicki squinted as the police photographer snapped off another quick series of shots. She couldn't see Mike, but she could hear him down in the tunnel barking commands in his best "God's gift to the Criminal Investigations Bureau" voice. Down in the tunnel. . . The hair on the back of her neck rose again as she remembered the feeling of something lingering, something dark and, well if she had to put a name to it, evil. She suddenly wanted to warn Celluci to be careful. She didn't. She knew how he'd react. How she'd react if their positions were reversed.
"Vicki? You sticking around?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to say no, that they knew where to find her if they needed further information, but curiosity-about what the police would find, about how long she could remain so close to the job she'd loved and not fall apart-turned the no into a grudging, "For a while. " She'd be damned if she'd run away.
As she watched, Celluci came up the stairs onto the platform and spoke to the ident man, sweeping one arm back along the tracks. The ident man protested that he needed a certain amount of light to do his job, but Celluci cut him off. With a disgusted snort, he picked up his case and headed for the tunnel.
Charming as ever, Vicki thought as Celluci scooped her coat off the floor and made his way toward her, de-touring slightly around the coroner's men who were finally zipping the body into its orange plastic bag. "Don't tell me," she called as soon as he was close enough, her voice carefully dry, almost sarcastic, and hopefully showing no indication of the churning emotions that had her gut tied in knots. "The only prints on the scene are mine?" There were, of course, a multitude of prints on the scene, none of which had been identified-that was for downtown-but the bloody handprints Vicki had scattered around were obvious.
"Dead on, Sherlock. " He tossed her the coat. "And the blood trail leads into a workman's alcove
Vicki frowned as she reconstructed what had to have happened just before she reached the platform. "You checked the southbound side?"
"That's where we lost the trail. " His tone added, Don't teach Grandpa to suck eggs. He held up a hand to forestall the next question. "I had one of the uniforms talk to the old man while Dave was dealing with you, but he's hysterical. He keeps going on about Armageddon. His son-in-law's coming to pick him up and I'll go see him tomorrow. "
Vicki shot a glance across the station where the old man who had followed her off the bus and down the stairs sat talking to a policewoman. Even at a distance he didn't look good. His face was gray and he appeared to be babbling uncontrollably, one scrawny, swollen-knuckled hand clutching at the constable's sleeve. Turning her attention back to her companion, she asked, "What about the subway? You closed it for the night?"
"Yeah. " Mike waved toward the end of the platform. "I want Jake to dust that alcove. " Intermittent flashes of light indicated the photographer was still at work. "It's not the sort of case where we can get in and out in a couple of minutes. " He shoved his hands into his overcoat pockets and scowled. "Although the way the transit commission squawked you'd think we were shutting it down in rush hour to pick up someone for littering. "
"What, uh, sort of case is it?" Vicki asked-as close as she could get to asking if he, too, felt it, whatever it turned out to be.
He shrugged. "You tell me; you seem to have gone to a great deal of trouble to land right in the middle of this. "
"I was here," she snapped. "Would you have preferred that I ignore it?"
"You had no weapon, no backup, no idea of what was going down. " Celluci ticked off an identical litany to the one she'd read herself earlier. "You can't have forgotten everything in eight months. "
"And what would you have done?" she spat through clenched teeth.
"I wouldn't have tried to kill myself just to prove I still could. "
The silence that fell landed like a load of cement blocks and Vicki gritted her teeth under its weight. Was that what she'd been doing? She looked down at the toes of her boots, then up at Mike. At five ten she didn't look up to many men but Celluci, at six four, practically made her feel petite. She hated feeling petite. "If we're going to rehash my leaving the force again, I'm out of here. "
He held up both hands in a gesture of weary surrender. "You're right. As usual. I'm sorry. We're not going to rehash anything. "
"You brought it up. " She sounded hostile; she didn't care. She should've followed her instincts and left the moment she'd given her statement. She had to have been out of her mind, putting herself in this position, staying in Celluci's reach.
A muscle in his jaw jumped. "I said I was sorry. Go ahead, be superwoman if you want to, but maybe," he added, his voice tight, "I don't want to see you get killed. Maybe, I'm not willing to toss aside eight years of friendship. . . "
"Friendship?" Vicki felt her eyebrows rise.
Celluci drove his hands into his hair, yanking them through the curls, a gesture he used when he was trying very hard to keep his temper. "Maybe I'm not willing to toss aside four years of friendship and four years of sex because of a stupid disagreement!"
"Just sex? That's it?" Vicki took the easy way out, ignoring the more loaded topic of their disagreement. A shortage of things to fight about had never been one of their problems. "Well, it wasn't just sex to me, Detective!"
They were both yelling now.
"Did I say it was just sex?" He spread his arms wide, his voice booming off the tiled walls of the subway station. "It was great sex, okay? It was terrific sex! It was. . . What?"
PC West, his fair skin deeply crimson, jumped. "You're blocking the body," he stammered.
Growling an inaudible curse, Celluci jerked back against the wall.
As the gurney rolled by, the contents of the fluorescent orange bag lolling a little from side to side, Vicki curled her hands into fists and contemplated planting one right on Mike Celluci's classically handsome nose. Why did she let him affect her like this? He had a definite knack for poking through carefully constructed shields and stirring up emotions she thought she had under control. Damn him anyway. It didn't help that, this time, he was right. A corner of her mouth twitched up. At least they were talking again. . .
When the gurney had passed, she straightened her fingers, laid her hand on Celluci's arm and said, "Next time, I'll do it by the book. "
It was as close to an apology as she was able to make and he knew it.
"Why start now. " He sighed. "Look, about leaving the force; you're not blind, Vicki, you could have stayed. . . "
"Celluci. . . " She ground his name through clenched teeth. He always pushed it just that one comment too far.
"Never mind. " He reached out and pushed her glasses up her nose. "Want a lift downtown?"
She glanced down at her ruined coat. "Why not. "
As they followed the gurney up the stairs, he punched her lightly on the arm. "Nice fighting with you again. "
She surrendered-the last eight months had been a punitive victory at best-and grinned. "I missed you, too. "
The Monday papers had the murder spread across page one. The tabloid even had a color photograph of the gurney being rolled out of the station, the body bag an obscene splotch of color amid the dark blues and grays. Vicki tossed the paper onto the growing "to be recycled" pile to the left of her desk and chewed on a thumbnail. Celluci's theory, which he'd grudgingly passed on while they drove downtown, involved PCPs and some sort of strap-on claws.
"Like that guy in the movie. "
"That was a glove with razor blades, Celluci. "
Vicki didn't buy it and she knew Mike didn't really either, it was just the best model he could come up with until he had more facts. His final answer often bore no resemblance to the theory he'd started with, he just hated working from zero. She preferred to let the facts fall into the void and see what they piled up to look like. Trouble was, this time they just kept right on falling. She needed more facts.
Her hand was halfway to the phone before she remembered and pulled it back. This had nothing to do with her any longer. She'd given her statement and that was as far as her involvement went.
She took off her glasses and scrubbed at one lens with a fold of her sweatshirt. The edges of her world blurred until it looked as if she were staring down a foggy tunnel; a wide tunnel, more than adequate for day to day living. So far, she'd lost about a third of her peripheral vision. So far. It could only get worse.
The glasses corrected only the nearsightedness. Nothing could correct the rest.
"Okay, this one's Celluci's. Fine. I have a job of my own to do," she told herself firmly. "One I can do. " One she'd better do. Her savings wouldn't last forever and so far her caseload had been embarrassingly light, her vision forcing her to turn down more than one potential client.
Teeth gritted, she pulled the massive Toronto white pages onto her lap. With luck, the F. Chan she was looking for, inheritor of a tidy sum of money from a dead uncle in Hong Kong, would be one of the twenty-six listed. If not. . . there were over three full pages of Chans, sixteen columns, approximately one thousand, eight hundred and fifty-six names and she'd bet at least half of those would have a Foo in the family.
Mike Celluci would be looking for a killer right now.
She pushed the thought away.
You couldn't be a cop if you couldn't see.
She'd made her bed. She'd lie in it.
Terri Neal sagged against the elevator wall, took a number of deep breaths, and, when she thought she'd dredged up a sufficient amount of energy, raised her arm just enough so she could see her watch.
"Twelve seventeen?" she moaned. Where the hell has Monday gone, and what's the point in going home? I've got to be back here in eight hours. She felt the weight of the pager against her hip and added a silent
The elevator door hissed open and she dragged herself forward into the underground garage.
"Leaving the office," she murmured, "take two. "
Squinting a little under the glare of the fluorescent lights, she started across the almost empty garage, her shadow dancing around her like a demented marionette. She'd always hated the cold, hard light of the fluorescents, the world looked decidedly unfriendly thrown into such sharp-edged relief. And tonight. . .
She shook her head. Lack of sleep made her think crazy things. Resisting the urge to keep looking over her shoulder, she finally reached the one benefit of all the endless hours of overtime.
"Hi, baby. " She rummaged in her pocket for her car keys. "Miss me?"
She flipped open the hatchback, heaved her briefcase- This damn thing must weigh three hundred pounds!-up and over the lip, and slid it down into the trunk. Resting her elbows on the weather stripping, she paused, half in and half out of the car, inhaling the scent of new paint, new vinyl, new plastic, and. . . rotting food. Frowning, she straightened.
At least it's coming from outside my car. . .
Gagging, she pushed the hatchback closed and turned. Let security worry about the smell tomorrow. All she wanted to do was get home.
It took a moment for her to realize she wasn't going to make it.
By the time the scream reached her throat, her throat had been torn away and the scream became a gurgle as her severed trachea filled with blood.
The last thing she saw as her head fell back was the lines of red dribbling darkly down the sides of her new car.
The last thing she heard was the insistent beep, beep, beep of her pager.
And the last thing she felt was a mouth against the ruin of her throat.
On Tuesday morning, the front page of the tabloid screamed "SLASHER STRIKES AGAIN. " A photograph of the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs stared out from under it, the cutline asking-not for the first time that season- if he should be fired, the Leafs being once again at the very bottom of the worst division in the league. It was the kind of strange layout at which the paper excelled.
"Fire the owner," Vicki muttered, shoving her glasses up her nose and peering at the tiny print under the headline. "Story page two," it said, and on page two, complete with a photo of the underground garage and a hysterical account by the woman who had found the body, was a description of a mutilated corpse that exactly matched the one Vicki had found in the Eglinton West Station.
"Homicide investigator Michael Celluci," the story continued, "says there is little doubt in his mind that this is not a copycat case and whoever killed Terri Neal also killed Ian Reddick on Sunday night. "
Vicki strongly suspected that was not at all what Mike had said, although it might have been the information he imparted. Mike seldom found it necessary to cooperate with, or even hide his distaste for, the press. And he was never that polite.
She read over the details again and a nameless fear ran icy fingers down her spine. She remembered the lingering presence she'd felt and knew this wouldn't be the end of the killing. She'd dialed the phone almost before she came to a conscious decision to call.
"Mike Celluci, please. What? No, no message. "
And what was I going to tell him? she wondered as she hung up. That I have a hunch this is only the beginning? He'd love that.
Tossing the tabloid aside, Vicki pulled the other city paper toward her. On page four it ran much the same story, minus about half the adjectives and most of the hysteria.
Neither paper had mentioned that ripping a throat out with a single blow was pretty much impossible.
If I could only remember what was missing from that body. She sighed and rubbed at her eyes.
Meanwhile, she had five Foo Chans to visit. . .
There was something moving in the pit. DeVerne Jones leaned against the wire fence and breathed beer fumes into the darkness, wondering what he should do about it. It was his pit. His first as foreman. They'd be starting the frames in the morning so that when spring finally arrived they'd be ready to pour the concrete. He peered around the black lumps of machinery. And there was something down there. In his pit.
Briefly he wished he hadn't decided to swing by the site on his way home from the bar. It was after midnight and the shape he'd seen over by the far wall was probably just some poor wino looking for a warm place to curl up where the cops would leave him alone. The crew could toss the bum out in the morning, no harm done. Except they had a lot of expensive equipment down there and it might be something more.
He dug out his keys and walked over to the gate. The padlock hung open. In the damp and the cold, it sometimes didn't catch, but he'd been the last man out of the pit and he'd checked it before he left. Hadn't he?
"Damn again," It had just become a very good thing he'd stopped by.
Hinges screaming in protest, the gate swung open.
DeVerne waited for a moment at the top of the ramp, to see if the sound flushed his quarry.
A belly full of beer and you're a hero, he thought, just sober enough to realize he could be walking into trouble and just drunk enough to not really care.
Halfway down into the pit, his eyes growing accustomed to the darkness, he saw it again. Man-shaped, moving too quickly to be a wino, it disappeared behind one of the dozers.
As silently as he was able, DeVerne quickened his pace. He'd catch the son-of-a-bitch in the act. He made a small detour and pulled a three foot length of pipe from a pile of scrap. No sense taking chances, even a cornered rat would fight. The scrape of metal against metal rang out unnaturally loud, echoing off the sides of the pit. His presence announced, he charged around the dozer, bellowing a challenge, weapon raised.
Someone was lying on the ground. DeVerne could see the shoes sticking out of the pool of shadow. In that pool of shadow-or creating it, DeVerne couldn't be sure- crouched another figure.
DeVerne yelled again. The figure straightened and turned, darkness swirling about it.
He didn't realize the figure had moved until the pipe was wrenched from his hand. He barely had time to raise his other hand in a futile attempt to save his life.
There's no such thing! he wailed silently as he died.
Wednesday morning, the tabloid headline, four inches high, read: "VAMPIRE STALKS CITY. "
Blood Price by Tanya Huff / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on34 votes