I Can See You
To Lieutenant Danny Agan, Atlanta PD, retired, and to the
real-life Hat Squad. Thank you all for your careers of service
and your dedication to finding justice for the victims of crime.
Special thanks to Danny for your friendship and help
in bringing my books to life.
To Sonie Lasker, my sempai and my friend.
Your discipline and dedication inspire me. Your workouts
make me stronger, your friendship nurtures me,
and your insight into my characters enriches my work.
And as always, to Martin. You are my reason.
Danny Agan, for the Hat Squad. And as always, thank you for answering all my many questions on police procedure, even though I keep promising, “Just one more!”
Marc Conterato, for always answering all my medical questions in a way I can always understand.
Sonie Lasker, for introducing me to the notion of the virtual world. I truly thought you were making it up!
Pamela Bolton-Holifield, for the facts on embalming. Someday, we’ll have our gurney race.
Lynn Gutierrez, Colleen Tripp, and Janet Ware, for all the bartending information and wonderful anecdotes.
TinMan, for the hacking jargon from “exploits” to “white hats.”
Terri Bolyard and Kay Conterato, who always listen.
Karen Kosztolnyik, Robin Rue, and Vicki Mellor, for simply everything.
Martin Hafer, for his help in psychological research protocol. And for bringing my dinner when I was on a roll.
As always, all mistakes are my own.
I introduce a new group of law enforcement officers in I CAN SEE YOU-the homicide detectives of Minneapolis and their “Hat Squad.”
In reality, the Hat Squad is a group of homicide detectives in Atlanta, Georgia. I was intrigued by the concept and the tradition started by Lieutenant Danny Agan, Atlanta PD, retired. The homicide detectives of Atlanta are presented with a classic felt fedora soon after solving their first homicide-a gift from the other more experienced detectives. They wear their hats on the job, the fabric and styles changing with the seasons. In the words of Danny Agan, “You dress the part, you dress like a detective, you get better results. It commands respect: Who’s showing up to take charge of this mess?”
When I started this book, I wanted to pay tribute to the Hat Squad. The Minneapolis Hat Squad is a product of my imagination, but based on real detectives who strive to get justice for victims every day.
Hope you enjoy meeting this new group!
All my best,
Minneapolis, Saturday, February 13, 9:10 p.m.
She was shy. Nervous. Mousy. Midforties and dowdy, even though she’d obviously dressed for the occasion in an ugly brown suit. She shouldn’t have bothered.
Martha Brisbane was just as he’d expected. He’d been watching her from across the crowded coffee shop for close to an hour now. Every time the door opened, she’d straighten, her eyes growing bright if a man entered. But the man would always sit elsewhere, ignoring her, and each time, her eyes grew a little less bright. Still she waited, watching the door. After an hour, the anticipation in her eyes had become desperation. He wondered how much longer her bottom-of-the-barrel self-esteem would keep her waiting. Hoping.
He’d found bursting their bubbles simply added to his fun.
Finally she glanced at her watch with a sigh and began to gather her purse and coat. One hour, six minutes, and forty-two seconds. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The barista behind the counter aimed her a sympathetic look from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “It’s snowing outside. Maybe he got tied up.”
Martha shook her head, defeat in the gesture. “I’m sure that’s it.”
The barista flashed an earnest smile. “You be careful driving home.”
It was his cue to exit, stage left. He slipped out of the side door in time to see Martha Brisbane huddled against the wind as she made her way to her beat-up old Ford Escort, mincing her steps in the two-inch heels that looked as if they pinched her fat feet. She managed to get to her car before the waterworks began, but once started, Martha didn’t stop crying, not when she pulled out of her parking place, not when she got on the highway. It was a wonder she didn’t run off the road and kill herself.
Drive carefully, Martha. I need you to arrive home in one piece.
By the time she parked in front of her apartment, her tears had ceased and she was sniffling, her face red and puffy and chapped from the wind. She stumbled up the stairs to her apartment building, grappling with the heavy bags of cat food and litter she’d purchased at the pet store before arriving at the coffee shop.
There was a security camera in the building’s lobby, but it was broken. He’d made sure of that days ago. He swept up the stairs and opened the door for her.
“Your hands are full. Can I help you?”
She shook her head, but managed a teary smile. “No, I’m fine. But thank you.”
He smiled back. “The pleasure is mine.” Which would soon be very true.
Wearily she trudged up three flights of stairs to her apartment, teetering on the two-inch heels as she balanced the heavy bags. She wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t know he stood behind her, waiting for her to put the key in her lock.
She set the bags down, fumbled for her key. For God’s sake, woman. I don’t have all night. Hurry up. Finally she opened her door, picked up the bags, and pushed the door open with her shoulder.
Now. He leapt forward, clamping his hand over her mouth and twisting her around into the apartment with a fluid motion. She struggled, swinging her heavy bags as he closed her door and leaned back against it, dragging her against him. A pistol against her temple had her struggles magically ceasing.
“Hold still, Martha,” he murmured, “and I just might let you live.” As if that was going to happen. Not. “Now put down the bags.”
Her bags dropped to the floor.
“Better,” he murmured. She was shaking in terror, just the way he liked it.
Her words, muffled against his hand, sounded like a terrified “Please, please.” That’s what his victims always said. He liked a polite victim.
He looked around with a sneer. Her apartment was a disgusting mess, books and magazines stacked everywhere. The surface of her desk was obscured by the cups of coagulated coffee, Post-it notes, and newspapers that she’d packed around her state-of-the-art computer.
Her clothes were pure nineties, but her computer was brand new. It figured. Nothing but the best for her forays into fantasyland.
He pressed the gun to her temple harder and felt her flinch against him. “I’m going to move my hand. If you scream, I will kill you.”
Sometimes they screamed. Always he killed them.
He slid his hand from her mouth to her throat. “Don’t hurt me,” she whimpered. “Please. I’ll give you my valuables. Take what you want.”
“Oh, I will,” he said quietly. “Desiree.”
She stiffened. “How did you know that?”
“Because I know everything about you, Martha. What you really do for a living. What you love. And what you fear the very most.” Still pressing the gun to her temple, he reached into his coat pocket for the syringe. “I see all. I know all. Up to and including the moment you will die. Which would be tonight.”
Minneapolis, Sunday, February 21, 6:35 p.m.
Homicide detective Noah Webster stared up into the wide, lifeless eyes of Martha Brisbane with a sigh that hung in the freezing air, just as she did. Within him was deep sadness, cold rage, and an awful dread that had his heart plodding hard in his chest.
It should have been an unremarkable crime scene. Martha Brisbane had hung herself in the conventional way. She’d looped a rope over a hook in her bedroom ceiling and tied a very traditional noose. She’d climbed up on an upholstered stool, which she’d then kicked aside. The only thing remotely untraditional was the bedroom window she’d left open and the thermostats she’d turned off. The Minnesota winter had served to preserve her body well. Establishing time of death would be a bitch.
Like many hangers, she was dressed for the occasion, makeup applied with a heavy hand. Her red dress plunged daringly, the skirt frozen around her dangling legs. She’d worn her sexiest five-inch red stilettos, which now lay on the carpet at her feet. One red shoe had fallen on its side while the other stood upright, the heel stuck into the carpet.
It should have been an unremarkable crime scene.
But it wasn’t. And as he stared up into the victim’s empty eyes, a chill that had nothing to do with the near-zero temps in Martha Brisbane’s bedroom went sliding down his spine. They were supposed to believe she’d hung herself. They were supposed to chalk it up to one more depressed, middle-aged single woman. They were supposed to close the case and walk away, without a second thought.
At least that’s what the one who’d hung her here had intended. And why not? That’s exactly what had happened before.
“The neighbor found her,” the first responding officer said. “CSU is on the way. So are the ME techs. Do you need anything else?”
Anything else to close it quickly, was the implication. Noah forced his eyes from the body to look at the officer. “The window, Officer Pratt. Was it open when you got here?”
Pratt frowned slightly. “Yes. Nobody touched anything.”
“The neighbor who called it in,” Noah pressed. “She didn’t open the window?”
“She didn’t enter the apartment. She tried knocking on the door but the victim didn’t answer, so she went around back, planning to bang on the window. She thought the victim would be asleep since she works nights. Instead, she saw this. Why?”
Because I’ve seen this scene before, he thought, déjà vu squeezing his chest so hard he could barely breathe. The body, the stool, the open window. Her dress and shoes, one standing up, one lying on its side. And her eyes.
Noah hadn’t been able to forget the last victim’s eyes, lids glued open, cruelly forced to remain wide and empty. This was going to be very bad. Very bad indeed.
“See if you can find the building manager,” he said. “I’ll wait for CSU and the ME.”
Officer Pratt gave him a sharp look. “And Detective GQ?”
Noah winced. That Jack Phelps wasn’t here yet was not, unfortunately, unusual. His partner had been distracted recently. Which was the polite way of saying he’d dropped the ball more than a few times.
“Detective Phelps is on his way,” he said, with more confidence than he felt.
Pratt grunted as he left in search of the manager and Noah felt a twinge of sympathy for Jack. Officers who’d never met Jack disrespected him. Thanks to that magazine. A recent article on the homicide squad had portrayed them as supermen. But Jack had borne the brunt, his face adorning the damn cover.
But Jack’s rep as a party-loving lightweight started long before the magazine hit the stands three weeks before and it was a shame. Focused, Jack Phelps was a good cop. Noah knew his partner had a quick mind, seeing connections others passed over.
Noah looked up into Martha Brisbane’s empty eyes. They were going to need all the quick minds they could get.
His cell buzzed. Jack. But it was his cousin Brock, from whose dinner table Noah had been called. Brock and his wife, Trina, were cops, they’d taken it in stride. In a family of cops, it was a rare Sunday dinner when one of them wasn’t called away.
“I’m tied up,” Noah answered, bypassing greeting.
“So is your partner,” Brock responded. Brock had been headed to Sal’s Bar to watch the game. Which meant that Jack was at Sal’s, too. Damn him.
“I’ve called him twice,” Noah gritted. Both calls had gone to Jack’s voicemail.
“He’s having drinks with his newest blonde. You want me to talk to him?”
Noah looked up at Martha Brisbane’s lifeless eyes and his anger bubbled tightly. It wasn’t the first time Jack had blown off his duty, but by God, it would be his last. “No. I’m going to get the first responder back in here and come down there myself.”
Sunday, February 21, 6:55 p.m.
“Come on, Eve, it’s just a little magazine quiz.”
Eve Wilson glanced across the bar at her friend with an exasperated shake of her head before returning her eyes to the beer tap. “I get enough quizzes at school.”
“But this one is fun,” Callie insisted, “unlike that psycho research project that has you tied up in knots. Don’t worry. You always get the best grade in class. Just one question.”
If only it was the grade. A few months ago, getting A’s was at the top of Eve’s mind. A few months ago the participants in her thesis research had been nameless, faceless numbers on a page. The mug filled, she replaced it with the next. The bar was busy tonight. She’d hoped to numb her mind with work, but the worry was always there.
Because a few months ago Eve never would have entertained the possibility of breaking university rules, of compromising her own ethics. But she’d done both of those things. Because now the test subjects were more than numbers on a page. Desiree and Gwenivere and the others were real people, in serious trouble.
Desiree had been missing for more than a week. I should do something. But what? She wasn’t supposed to know that Desiree existed, much less that she was Martha Brisbane in real life. Test subjects were assured their privacy.
But Eve did know, because she’d broken the rules. And I’ll have to pay for that.
Across the bar, Callie cleared her throat dramatically, taking Eve’s silence for assent. “Question one. Have you ever gone on a romantic dinner to-”
“I’m busy,” Eve interrupted. For the next few hours there was nothing she could do about Martha and her other test subjects, but Callie’s quiz was not welcome respite. Do you believe in love at first sight, my ass. I hate those quizzes. Which, of course, was the reason Callie insisted on reading them. “Look, Cal, I took your shift so you could party.”
Callie shrugged the shoulders her cocktail dress left bare. “Nice try. I had somebody to cover for me. You should be studying, but you’re here, procrastinating.”
It was fair. Grasping three mug handles in each fist, Eve clenched her teeth against the pain that speared through her right hand. But until last year that hand couldn’t hold a coffee cup, so a little pain seemed a small price to pay for mobility. And independence.
She lifted the mugs into the waiting hands of one of her most regular regulars, quirking the responsive side of her mouth in the three-cornered smile that, after years of practice, appeared normal. “Normal” was right up there with mobility and independence.
“You’ve been buying all night, Jeff,” she said, surreptitiously flexing her fingers, “and haven’t had a drop yourself.” Which was so not normal. “You lose a bet?”
Officer Jeff Betz was a big guy with a sweet grin. “Don’t tell my wife. She’ll kill me.”
Eve nodded sagely. “Bartenders never tell. It’s part of the oath.”
He met her eyes, gratitude in his. “I know,” he said, then turned to Callie. “Hot date?”
“You betcha.” Callie nodded, comfortable with the scrutiny she’d received since gliding into Sal’s on ridiculously high heels. Her tiny dress would earn her significantly better tips were she to wear it next time she tended bar. Not that she needed any help.
Clerking for the county prosecutor was Callie’s primary means of putting herself through law school, but she’d recently started picking up extra cash working at Sal’s on weekends, her tip jar consistently filled to the brim. That dress combined with Callie’s substantial cleavage would send her cup running over, so to speak.
Hopefully Callie’s dress wouldn’t give their boss any ideas, Eve thought darkly. Because there’s no way in hell I’m wearing anything like that, tips or no.
So to speak. Eve squashed the envy. Never pompous, Callie was a beautiful woman comfortable in her own skin, something that Eve had not been in a long time.
Eve made her voice light. “Her date’s taking her to Chez León.”
Jeff whistled. “Spendy.” Then he frowned. “Do we know this guy?”
The “we” was understood-it included every cop that hung at Sal’s. Eighty percent of Sal’s customers were police, which made the bar one of the safest places in town. An ex-cop, Sal was one of their own, and by extension so was everyone on Sal’s payroll. It was like having a hundred big brothers. Which was pretty nice, Eve thought.
“I don’t think so,” Callie demurred. Her date was a defense attorney, which earned him poor opinion among their cops. Callie agreed, which was precisely why she’d accepted the date. Callie’s constant challenge of her own worldview was something Eve had always admired. “But he’s late, so I’m trying to get Eve to take this little quiz.”
“Is that that MSP rag with Jack Phelps on the cover?” Jeff asked, his lip curled.
MSP was the women’s magazine that juggled Minneapolis-St. Paul gossip, culture, and local concerns. Their recent exposé on the homicide squad had made instant, if temporary, celebrities of Sal’s regulars. It was a decent piece, although it did make their cops into white knights, a fact that had embarrassed the hell out of the detectives.
Jeff gave Eve a pitying look. “My wife made me take that damn quiz.”
Eve’s lips twitched. “Did you pass?”
“Of course. A man can’t stay happily married without knowing how to BS his way through one of those things.” With a parting wink, he carried the beer back to his waiting friends, all off-duty cops who made Sal’s their home away from home.
Callie rolled her eyes when Jeff was gone. “If he spent half the time he’s here with his wife, he wouldn’t have had to BS his way through this ‘damn quiz,’ ” she muttered.
“Don’t judge,” Eve murmured, dumping two shots of gin over ice. “Jeff’s wife works second shift at the hospital. When he’s on days, he hangs here, then takes her home.”
Callie frowned. “What about their kids? Who’s watching them?”
“No kids.” But not from lack of trying, Jeff had confided one night when the bar was empty and he’d had a little too much to drink. The stress had nearly torn his marriage apart. Eve understood his pain far more than Jeff had realized. Far more than she’d ever let anyone see. Even Callie. “I guess his house is kind of quiet.”
Callie sighed. “What else should I know so I don’t put my foot in my mouth again?”
Eve tried to think of something she could share without breaking a confidence. She wouldn’t tell Callie about the cop at Jeff’s table who was worried his wife was leaving him, or the policewoman at the end of the bar, just diagnosed with breast cancer.
So many secrets, Eve thought. Listening, keeping their secrets, was a way she could help them while she worked on her master’s in counseling. If she ever made it through her damn thesis she’d be a therapist, trading one listening career for another.
But I’ll miss this place. She’d miss Sal and his wife, Josie, who’d given her a chance to work, to support herself in the new life she’d started in Minneapolis. She’d miss Jeff and all the regulars, who’d become more like friends than customers.
Some she’d miss more than others, she admitted. The one she’d miss most never came in on Sundays, but that didn’t stop her eyes from straying to the door every time the bell jingled. Watching Noah Webster come through the door still caught her breath, every time. Tall, dark. Powerful. Look, but don’t touch. Not anymore. Probably not ever again.
She looked up to find Callie watching her carefully. Eve pointed to a couple who’d confided nothing, but whose behavior screamed volumes. “They’re having an affair.”
Callie glanced over her shoulder. “How do you know?”
“Hunch. They never socialize, are always checking their cells, but never answer. She twists her wedding ring and when the guy comes to the bar for their wine, he’s twitchy. So they’re either having an affair or planning a bank heist.” Callie chuckled and Eve’s lips quirked. “I suspect the former. They think nobody notices them.”
Callie shook her head. “Why do people always think they’re invisible?”
“They don’t see anyone but each other. They assume nobody sees them either.”
Callie pointed to a young man who sat at a table alone, his expression grim. “Him?”
“Tony Falcone.” Tony had shared his experience in the open, so Eve felt no guilt in repeating it. “He caught his first suicide victim last week. Shook him up.”
“From the looks of him, he still is,” Callie said softly. “Poor kid.”
“He couldn’t forget the woman’s eyes. She’d glued them open, then hung herself.”
Callie flinched. “God. How do any of these cops sleep at night?”
“They learn to deal.” She met Callie’s eyes. “Just like you did.”
“Like we did,” Callie said quietly. “You a lot more so than me.”
Yes, I dealt. But how well? Surgery could fix hands and minimize scars, but in the end one still had to be. It was easier here, surrounded by others who saw the darkness in the world. But when the noise was gone and the memories echoed in her mind…
Uneasy, Eve mixed another drink. “We all do what we have to do. Some have addictions, some have hobbies. Some come here.” She shrugged. “Hell, I come here.”
“To forget about life for a while,” Callie murmured, then shook off her mood. “I’ll take those out for you. It’s the least I can do since I’ve left you with the whole bar tonight.”
Eve arched her right brow, one of the few facial features that still obeyed her command. “It’s going to Detective Phelps and his bimbo du jour.” Who were necking at a table next to the TV wall where everyone would see them. Eve didn’t have to wonder if the choice was deliberate. Jack Phelps liked everyone to know when he’d scored.
Phelps should take a lesson from his way-too-serious partner. Eve stifled her sigh. Or perhaps Noah Webster should borrow just a smidge of Jack’s cheek. Jack hit on her every time he came to the bar, but in the year he’d been coming to Sal’s, Webster had never said more than “please” and “thank you” when she served his tonic water.
He came in on Mondays with Phelps, who’d order a gin and tonic for them both. Phelps always got the gin, Webster always the tonic. Then Phelps would flirt with the women and Webster would nurse his water, green eyes alert, but unreadable.
For a while she’d thought he’d come to watch her, but after weeks had gone by she’d given up on any such notion. Not that she’d reciprocate any move he made, so the question was moot. Although her mind still stubbornly wandered, imagining what she’d say if Noah ever uttered the lines that fell so meaninglessly from Jack’s lips.
Of course, fantasy and reality were very different things. This fact Eve knew well.
“We have to be fair here, Eve,” Callie said dryly. “Katie’s more than a bimbo du jour. She’s been with Phelps for three whole weeks. That could be a record for him.”
Katie had come in with the other groupies after the MSP article had hit the stands and Jack had reeled her in like a walleye. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, Katie would be gone soon and Jack would move to his next conquest. “So she’s more the flavor of the month. You gonna take these drinks or not?”
“Not on your life. Katie doesn’t like me much. You’re on your own, pal.”
“I thought so. I have to talk to Phelps anyway. That magazine you found is Sal’s copy. He wants Phelps to sign the cover so he can add it to the Hat wall.”
Sal had covered one wall of his bar with TVs, but the others were covered in photos, most taken by Sal, all of cops. One wall he’d dedicated to his favorites-the homicide detectives known as the Hat Squad for the classic fedoras they wore. The wall had, in fact, inspired the MSP article. One day one of their staff writers had wandered in to Sal’s and been instantly charmed. To the public, the hats were an unofficial uniform, but to the detectives who proudly wore them, the hats were a badge of honor. Every member of the squad owned at least one fedora.
When a newly promoted detective solved his first case, he was presented with a fedora by his or her peers. It was tradition. Eve liked that. As years passed and more murders were solved, the detectives supplemented their own hat collections according to their personal style and the season-felt in the winter, sometimes straw in the summer.
Eve had never seen Noah Webster wear anything but black felt. It suited him.
“I was wondering why Sal moved the picture frames around,” Callie said, pointing to the large, new bare spot on the wall. “But not even Phelps’s head is that big.”
Eve chuckled. “Sal’s done a collage. He got all the detectives whose pictures were in the article to sign the page from the magazine. Phelps’s cover is supposed to be at the center.” She sobered. “But Phelps won’t sign it, even though Sal all but begged him.”
Callie’s brows shot up in surprise. “Why? Jack’s not going for humble now, is he?”
Eve studied Jack, who was discreetly checking his cell phone for the third time in a half hour. He returned the unanswered phone to his pocket, and his lips to Katie’s pouting mouth. “Who knows why men like Jack Phelps do the things they do?”
A bitter frown creased Callie’s brow. “Because they can. Poor Sal.”
“I promised him I’d ask Phelps one more time.”
Callie closed the magazine and Jack’s face stared up from the cover. He was a dead ringer for Paul Newman, down to his baby blues. And, Eve thought, he knew it. “You’re going to pander to that ego?” Callie huffed. “You hate Jack as much as I do.”
Eve smiled. “But I love Sal. He’s given me so much and this means a lot to him. He found some old photos of himself wearing his hat before his accident.” Before he’d been forced to give up the career that had been his life. “He wanted to do a Hat Squad photo exposé of his own. For Sal, I can pander to Phelps’s ego for a few minutes.”
Callie’s frown eased. “You have a good soul, Eve.”
Embarrassed, Eve put the drinks on a tray. “Watch the bar for me.” But she hadn’t taken a step when the door opened, jingling the bell and letting in a gust of frigid air. Her eyes shot to the door before she reminded herself that it was Sunday.
She started to turn back to the bar, then stopped. Because Sunday or no, there he was. Noah Webster. Filling the doorway like a photo in a frame.
Suddenly, as always, all the oxygen was sucked from the room. He paused in the doorway and Eve couldn’t tear her eyes away. Dressed in black from his fedora to his shiny shoes, he looked, as always, as if he’d stepped straight from an old film noir. There was something edgy, almost thuggish in the way he carried himself, a coiled danger Eve didn’t want to find attractive. As if she’d ever had a choice.
He was linebacker big, his shoulders nearly touching the sides of the door, so tall the top of his hat brushed the doorframe most men cleared with ease. Heavy stubble darkened his jaw and her fingers itched to touch. Look, but don’t touch. The mantra was ingrained.
He closed the door and Eve dragged in a ragged breath. Normally she was prepared before he came through the door, defenses ready. Today he’d taken her by surprise.
“I’d say that’s a yes,” Callie said softly.
“Yes, what?” Eve asked, her gaze hungrily following Noah, who was striding across the bar toward Jack’s table. He was angry. She could feel it from where she stood.
Apparently Jack did, too. Eve watched the briefest shiver of alarm pass through Jack’s eyes, followed by sly calculation, then wide-eyed surprise. He frowned at his cell phone and Eve remembered seeing him check it, three times. SOB. His partner needed him and here he’d sat, showing off his sexual prowess with his bimbo du jour.
“Yes to number six,” Callie murmured. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
Eve jerked her eyes to Callie and saw she’d flipped the magazine open to that damn quiz again. “Will you cut it out? The answer is no. N-O.”
“Lust then. Can’t say that I blame you. He’s a lot more potent in person, all burly and broody.” She turned to the article and the picture of Webster. “Doesn’t do him justice.”
Eve refused to look. It didn’t matter. She’d seen that picture hundreds of times. At home. In private. That Callie had seen her reaction to Noah’s entrance in public was bad enough. But who else had seen? And worse, pitied her adolescent fascination with a man who’d never said more than please or thank you?
Her face heated, making it worse. She knew the scar on her cheek, almost invisible under her makeup, was now blazing white against her scarlet face. Out of habit, she turned her face away, reaching for his bottle of tonic water. Then she put it back. From the look of their conversation, Webster had come to fetch Jack. He wouldn’t be staying.
She busied her hands, pouring coffee into two Styrofoam cups, adding spoonfuls of sugar. “Can you just put that damn magazine away?”
“Eve, I only could see it because I’m your best friend. Nobody else noticed a thing.”
Eve’s laugh was bitter. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
Callie smiled wryly. “Did it work?”
“No.” Eve lifted her eyes, saw Jack Phelps putting on his coat. “But on the upside, Phelps is leaving. I won’t have to ask him to sign that damn cover for Sal.”
“Unfortunately, he’ll be back.”
As will his partner. Next time I’ll be ready. And next time I won’t even look. Eve snapped lids on the coffee cups. “Do me a favor. Take these to them. It’s cold tonight.”
“Thank you.” Noah took the cup of coffee from Sal’s new weekend bartender. The men had been talking about her. Curvy and blonde, she was quite a package.
But she wasn’t the woman he’d been coming to see for months. The one he thought about long before walking into Sal’s every week, and long after leaving. That would be the tall, willowy brunette quietly standing behind the bar, dark eyes wide. Watching me.
Watching everyone. Eve Wilson reminded him of a doe, head always up. Always aware. He wondered what had happened to make her that way. There was a fragility, a vulnerability her eyes didn’t always mask. Whatever had happened, it had been bad.
Which hadn’t taken a detective to figure out. Up until six months ago, she’d borne a visible mark of past violence, a scar on her cheek. Rumor had it that a surgeon had worked magic with his knife, because now it was barely visible. Rumor also had it that the black leather choker she wore around her neck covered another scar, much worse.
Noah had lost count of the number of times he’d been a mouse click away from finding out what had put that wary guard behind the façade of calm. But he hadn’t. He wanted to believe he respected her privacy, but knew he didn’t want to know. Because once he knew, it would change… everything. The knowledge rattled him.
Conversely, very little seemed to rattle Eve, even the clumsy advances of drunken customers. More than once in the last year Noah had been tempted to come to her aid, but she always managed-either on her own or with the help of one of the other cops.
The men took care of her. They liked her. They lusted after Callie, but liked Eve, which left Noah grimly reassured. He would’ve had a much harder time sitting with his damned tonic water week after week had it been the other way around, because long before he walked in every week and long after he left, he wanted her. But he had only to look at the mugs of beer and glasses of liquor surrounding him to know he couldn’t have everything that he wanted. Some things, like Eve, were best left untouched.
However difficult she was to rattle, Eve had been startled tonight. Her dark doe eyes had widened. Flared to life. And for that undefended split second, his heart stumbled, the hunger in her eyes stroking the ego he’d tried so hard to ignore. But he’d come to get Jack. And it didn’t matter anyway. That Eve was interested didn’t negate any of the reasons he’d vowed to keep his distance. If anything, it underscored them.
He pulled his eyes back to Callie, who still stood in front of him, studying him. “Eve thought you might want something to keep you warm when you went back out,” she said, shivering in a skimpy black dress that left little to the imagination.
“Tell her I appreciate it. You should get away from the door. You’ll catch cold.”
Callie’s smile was self-deprecating. “The things we women do for fashion.”
Looking over his shoulder, Noah watched Callie take the other cup she held to Jack. She spared his partner no conversation, simply leaving the cup on the table. Jack wouldn’t have heard her anyway. He was soothing Katie, who was pouting because he had to leave. Noah bit back what he really wanted to say, about both Katie’s pout and Jack’s idiotic song and dance about no cell phone reception in the bar.
Noah pulled out his own phone. Just as he’d thought, strong reception. He wasn’t sure if Jack believed his own excuses, thought Noah was stupid enough to believe them, or just didn’t care if anyone believed him or not. Regardless, Noah was going to have to report him soon. Jack had missed too much work.
The thought of turning in his own partner made him sick. When Jack focused, he was a damn good cop. If he could just keep his fly zipped, there would be no issue.
“Noah. Over here.” His cousin Brock was waving from his table along the far wall. “You found him, I see,” Brock said quietly when Noah approached.
Noah nodded. “I need his eyes on the scene.” He thought about Martha Brisbane, still hanging from her ceiling, eyes wide open. “This is going to be a bad one.”
“Call if you need me.” Brock glanced to the bar where Eve was shaking a martini, her gaze constantly roving the bar. “On any subject,” he added, accusingly.
“I will,” Noah said and Brock shook his head in disgust.
“That’s what you always say. You gotta fish or cut bait, man. This has gone on long enough. You’re playing with fire, every damn time you walk into this bar.”
It was true. “I know.” Still he shrugged. “When I close this case.”
Brock’s jaw hardened. “That’s what you always say.”
That was true, too. Noah always promised that this time would be the last he’d walk into Sal’s, but he always came back. He’d spent ten years battling one addiction, only to find another. Eve Wilson was his weakness, dangerous in more ways than one.
“I know,” Noah repeated, reaching for the four packets of sugar he took in his coffee.
Brock pushed the sugar container away. “I’d taste it first if I were you.”
Noah did and drew a quiet breath. Eve had added it already. He’d ordered coffee maybe twice in the last year, and had added his own sugar each time. She’d not only watched, she’d remembered. The look on Brock’s face said he knew it, too.
“She’s a good bartender,” Noah said. “I bet she remembers what you always order.”
Brock rolled his eyes. “You’re a goddamn fool, Noah.”
Noah sighed. “Yeah, I know that, too. Tell Trina thanks for dinner. I have to go.”
Jack had just left, Katie clinging to his arm. He’d said he’d go home and change, then join Noah at the scene where they’d focus their full attention on finding out who’d killed Martha Brisbane. They’d do their jobs. For Noah, the job was all. When he’d hit rock bottom, the job was what led him out. He’d do well to remember that.
But Noah felt Eve’s steady gaze as he made his way toward the door and he stopped. He wouldn’t be coming back. Wouldn’t see her again. He hadn’t come within fifteen feet of the bar in six months, Jack eager to get their orders once Eve’s scar disappeared, shallow jerk that he was. And you? What are you? He’d sat there, and watched.
I’m a fool. Deliberately, he turned to the bar. Her eyes were quiet as he approached, but he could see the pulse hammering in the hollow of her throat beneath the choker she wore, and knew he hadn’t been wrong about that flash of hunger he’d seen before. He lifted the cup, a million things he wanted to say stampeding through his mind. In the end, he said the only thing that he could say. The only thing that made any sense.
She nodded once, swallowed hard. “It’s just a cup of coffee, Detective.”
But it was more. It was kindness, one more in a string of many he’d witnessed over the months, most when she thought no one was watching. But he’d seen.
Turn around and go. But he didn’t say anything, nor did he go, his eyes dropping to her hands. Her left cradled the right. A jagged scar wrapped around her thumb and disappeared up the sleeve of a black sweater that matched her short hair and dipped just low enough to be considered modest, yet still make a man look twice. And wish.
Calmly she splayed her hands flat on the bar as if to say, “Nothing to see here, please move along.” But for a brief moment her eyes flickered, and he glimpsed a yearning so profound it stole his breath. As quickly as it had come, it was controlled, gone, and she was back to guardedly serene. “Stay safe, Detective,” she said quietly.
He touched the brim of his hat. “Take care.” And good-bye.
Noah gulped a mouthful of the scalding coffee as he walked to his car, the sweet liquid sour on his tongue. Fish or cut bait. It would be the second one. As long as he’d clung to the belief that he was only hurting himself, he could go to the bar, just to see her. But tonight she’d nibbled, just a light tug on the line, but a tug nonetheless.
He’d reel in his line before he hooked her. And hurt her. Whatever she’d been through, it had been bad. I won’t make it worse by dragging her down with me.
Sunday, February 21, 7:15 p.m.
Lindsay Barkley woke screaming. Dogs. Snarling, baring their teeth, chasing. Run. But she couldn’t run. She was tied and couldn’t run. They were on her, teeth ripping…
She screamed and the jagged teeth disappeared, the snarling abruptly silenced.
A dream. She was panting, gasping for breath. Just a bad dream. A nightmare, she thought, as her mind cleared. She tried to move and the terror returned in a dizzying rush. This is no nightmare. The bed to which she’d been tied was real, as was the dark room. Ropes bit into her wrists and ankles. The air was dry. Her mouth was like chalk and the pillow beneath her head smelled of sweat and vomit. Her eyes burned like fire.
She tried to blink, but her eyes merely stared straight ahead into the darkness. Her eyes were glued open. She was naked. And so cold. No. This can’t be happening.
“Help.” What in her mind had been a shrill scream escaped from her throat in a hoarse whisper. Dry. Her throat was too dry to scream. He’s going to kill me.
No. I’ll get away. Think. Think. The last thing she remembered was being pushed to the backseat floor of his black SUV and the jab of a needle on her neck.
He’d looked so… respectable. Clean. Trustworthy. When she’d quoted her price he’d smiled politely. So she’d gotten into his SUV. She didn’t like getting into cars with her johns, but it was cold outside, so she had. I’m so cold. Somebody help me.
He said he had a hotel, that he’d take her someplace warm. Nice. He’d lied. He’d pulled over, dragged her from the front seat to the back, holding a gun to her head. Then he’d jabbed a needle into her neck. And he’d laughed, told her when she woke, she’d be torn apart by wild beasts, limb from limb. And that she’d die tonight.
He’d been right about the dogs. I don’t want to die. I’m sorry, she prayed, hoping God would still hear. You can’t let me die. Who will take care of Liza?
Upstairs a door opened, closed, and she heard the click of a dead-bolt. He’s coming. He flicked on the light and she could see. And her thundering heart simply stopped.
Shoes. The walls were lined with shelves that held more shoes than she’d ever seen outside a store. They were grouped by the pair, heels out. Dozens of shoes.
At the end of the top row was a pair of stretched-out pumps with a tiny heel next to the five-inch leopard skin stilettos she’d pulled from her own closet, just hours before.
My shoes. God, please help me. I swear I’ll never turn a trick again. I’ll flip burgers, I’ll do anything. Don’t let me die here.
Desperate, Lindsay yanked at the ropes as he came down the stairs, but they were too strong. She drew another breath to scream, but again it came out hoarsely pathetic.
His expression went from expectant to furious the instant he came into view. “You’re awake. When did you wake up? Godammit,” he snarled. “I was only gone five minutes.”
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t kill me. I won’t tell. I promise I won’t tell.”
Pain speared through her when the back of his hand hit her mouth. She tasted blood.
“I didn’t say you could speak,” he snarled. “You’re nothing. Less than nothing.”
Terror clawed. “Please.” The pain was worse the second time, his ring hitting her lip.
“Silence.” He was naked and erect and she tried to get calm. It was just sex. Maybe this was a bondage fantasy. She dropped her dry, burning eyes suggestively to his groin. “I’ll make it good for you. I’ll give you what you need.”
She cried out when his palm struck her cheek.
“Like I’d put anything of mine in anything of yours,” he said with contempt. He climbed on the bed, straddling her. “You give me nothing. I take what I need.”
His hands closed around her throat, tightening his grip. Can’t breathe. God, please. Lights danced before her eyes and she flailed, trying to draw just one breath. Just one.
His laugh was faraway, tinny. Like she was in a tunnel. The last thing she heard was his groan as he climaxed, his seed hot on her frozen skin. And then… darkness.
Breathing hard, he stared into her face, now slack in death. Withdrawing his hands from her throat, he clenched them into fists. It should have been better. He’d needed it to be better. Dammit. She’d woken earlier than he’d calculated and he’d missed her postsedation hallucinations. During the hallucinations was always the optimal moment.
Whatever he whispered as they were going under, they experienced as they awoke. The abject terror in their eyes when they were waking… He’d learned long ago that their fear was far better than any drug, sending his orgasm into the stratosphere.
That had been denied him today. His breathing began to slow, his racing thoughts to settle. Which was the primary objective. The orgasm was just… incidental.
Nice, but completely unnecessary. He climbed off her, staying away from the blood sullenly oozing from her lip. He was always careful with the trash he collected. Hookers and addicts, crawling with disease. Disgusting.
It was late. He’d shower her stink off of his skin, get dressed, and do what needed to be done. He hoped somebody had found Martha Brisbane. He’d been waiting for days, the need to move forward to the next victim growing every hour. He couldn’t move to the next victim until the police found the last one. That was his own rule.
Rules kept order and order controlled chaos. The higher the chaos, the greater the chances of discovery and that wouldn’t do at all. So he’d follow his own rules.
He looked at the body on the narrow bed. She’d served her purpose. A diversion, a means to keep his mind clear while he waited for someone to discover Martha. Once he got his mind prepared for a kill, he had to move. If he didn’t, his mind raced too fast.
Options, scenarios, outcomes. It was distracting, and he couldn’t afford to be distracted. In his line of work, he had to be sharp, every day. Now, more than ever.
He grabbed the steel handle in the concrete floor. The slab moved silently on well-oiled bearings, revealing the pit where he’d disposed of dozens of bodies over the years. Hookers. Addicts. Trash nobody would miss. The world is a better place without them here. Dozens of victims and the police had never had even a whiff of suspicion.
He sniffed in disdain. “Modern-day heroes,” he muttered, quoting the shallow, pathetically written article all the detectives claimed embarrassed them, but he knew better. They’d secretly preened, thrilled to be so elevated in the public’s regard.
They were simply thugs with big guns and very small brains. Easily manipulated. He should know. He’d been manipulating them for years. They just didn’t know it.
That was about to change. He’d bring them down, humiliate them. Show everyone what they really were. The premise of his plan was quite simple. He’d do what he’d been doing for years-killing women right under their noses. He looked into the pit. But not like this. Not quietly. Not discreetly. And not the dregs of society no one would miss.
He considered the six women he’d chosen. Single women who lived alone, but who had family and friends who’d grieve their loss in sound bites covered by a sympathetic press who’d quickly lose patience with their precious Hat Squad.
Which was the point of it all. The six he’d chosen would capture the public’s attention, command their ire in a way no skanky, lice-infested prostitutes ever could.
Of course the irony of his choices wasn’t lost. His six had never walked a street or shot up, but they were hookers and addicts just the same. They simply plied their trade and fed their addictions in less traditional venues. They were women, after all.
He’d had to change his MO in other ways. No bringing them here where he had disposal down to a science. Instead he’d posed them in their homes, leaving clues of his choosing. He didn’t touch them, couldn’t risk putting his hands around their necks. He’d correctly anticipated the loss of the tactile would detract from the experience.
And he’d had to hold back. He couldn’t release himself on them. Any killer that left DNA behind was a fool. The strain of killing without the physical release had been a bit more difficult than he’d expected, but this hooker had taken off the edge.
It would be worth it. Headlines would scream SERIAL KILLER UNCHALLENGED and COPS CLUELESS. So true. A serial killer, the people would quail, in their own midst. Oh my. If they only knew he’d killed in their midst for years. Oh my.
How many victims would it take before they wised up? Martha was the third of his six. But they hadn’t found Martha yet and he was growing impatient. Fortunately he was disciplined enough to stick with his plan, falling back on the tried and true for relief.
He dragged the hooker’s body to the pit and rolled her in. He threw her clothes in after, except for her shoes. Those he would keep, as he’d done dozens of times before.
He donned the coveralls he’d taken from the man he’d hired to dig the pit, twenty years before. Who, bullet in his head, had become its first inhabitant. He shoveled lime from the steel drum into the pit, covering the body.
Quicklime hastened decomposition of flesh without the fuss and muss and foul odor, but one had to be careful. It was powerful stuff, highly reactive with moisture. He kept his basement dry with dehumidifiers, with a side benefit the preservation of his shoes.
The pumps he’d taken from the feet of his first victim nearly thirty years ago were in as good condition as the shoes he’d taken from victims over the last three weeks.
He finished the hooker’s burial by adding dirt to cover the lime, pulled the handle on the slab to cover the pit. Just as he’d done dozens of times before.
But although this killing had fulfilled its purpose, it was a shadow next to the triumph he’d feel when the police realized they had a bona fide serial killer on their hands.
Sunday, February 21, 7:55 p.m.
Sorry again. I gotta get a new phone,” Jack said, crossing Martha’s bedroom.
Noah had been waiting, stewing for half an hour. Jack had said he’d change clothes, but his eyes held a satisfaction any man would recognize. He’d had sex with Katie. While a victim hung from her damn ceiling. That was it. I’m going to have to report him.
“Whatever, Jack,” he said coldly, but if Jack detected his fury, it didn’t show.
“So, introduce me to the lady with the Bette Davis eyes and get this party swinging.”
The ME techs were impatiently waiting to cut the body down, but Noah had wanted Jack to see the scene. I shouldn’t have bothered. I might have a new partner soon.
“Martha Brisbane,” Noah said tightly. “Forty-two, single. Found by her neighbor.”
“It’s cold in here. Did the neighbor open the window or did Ms. Brisbane?”
“The neighbor said the window was open.”
“Well, it could be worse. It could be August. Shit. Are her eyes glued open?”
“Yes,” Noah bit out. “They are.” Just like the other one.
“That’s one you don’t see every day.” Then Jack shrugged. “At least this should be quick. I might even get back to Katie in time for dessert. If you know what I mean.”
Noah bit his tongue, saved from a response by ME tech Isaac Londo. “So now that Detective GQ’s finally here, can we finally cut her down?”
“No,” Noah said sharply.
“I got twenty on tonight’s game,” Londo grumbled. “I want to get out of here.”
CSU’s Micki Ridgewell looked up from putting her camera away. “What’s the big deal, Web? The vic strung herself from the ceiling, kicked the stool away, and died.”
Jack frowned, as if finally realizing something was up. “What’s wrong here?”
You want a damn list? “This scene,” Noah said. “I’ve seen this scene before.”
“Well, of course you have,” Micki said reasonably. “After fifteen years, you’ve seen almost every crime scene before. So have I.”
“No. I’ve seen this scene before, down to the placement of the victim’s shoes.”
“I haven’t,” Jack said, dead serious now. “When did you see it and why didn’t I?”
“Friday morning, a week ago. You were home… sick.”
Jack tensed at Noah’s hesitation, flags of angry color staining his cheeks. “I was.”
Noah let it slide. This was not the place for confrontation. “It was Gus Dixon’s scene. I’d borrowed his mini recorder because mine broke and I needed to interview a witness.” For a case he’d closed without Jack, because Jack had been sick. “On my way back from the interview, Dix called. He needed his recorder at a scene, so I took it to him.”
“And it was this scene?” Jack asked, eyes narrowing. “A hanging?”
“Exactly. The stool was overturned, same distance and angle from the body. The vic wore this dress and the same style shoes. One shoe lying on its side, the other standing straight up. The type of hook, the noose, the open window, everything is the same.”
Micki frowned. “Déjà vu all over again.”
“But this victim was hung,” Londo said. “Petechiae in the eyes, the ligatures on her throat… All the injuries are consistent with a short-drop hanging.”
“Dix’s was the same,” Noah said. “But her eyes are glued open just like Dix’s victim.”
Jack winced. “I was just kidding about the Bette Davis eyes.” Studying the scene again, Jack pointed to the stool. “You done with it, Mick?” He picked it up and, placing it directly under the body, stepped back, and Noah’s suspicion was confirmed.
The stool sat two full inches lower than the tips of Martha Brisbane’s toes.
“Holy fuck,” Londo muttered. “Was that the same on the other hanger, too?”
“I don’t know. When I got there some other ME techs had already cut her down.”
“This vic couldn’t have stuck her neck in the noose and still been able to kick the stool away,” Micki said quietly. “Somebody helped her.”
Noah looked up into Martha’s wide eyes. “Somebody killed her.”
“And went to a lot of trouble to make it look like a suicide,” Jack said. “Any note?”
“We haven’t found one,” Noah said.
Micki took more close-ups of the red stilettos. “No scuffs.” She held a shoe next to the victim’s foot. “And too small. Why go to all this trouble and leave the wrong shoes?”
“I wonder how many others he’s staged,” Jack said.
“And how many we missed.” Noah nodded at Londo. “You can take her down now.”
“Let’s check this apartment,” Jack said, “then go talk to the neighbor who found her.”
“Sarah Dwyer. Martha promised to water Dwyer’s plants while she was away.”
“How long ago was that?” Jack asked.
“Two weeks,” Noah said. “Officer Pratt said Dwyer got back today, pissed because her plants were dead. She came to yell at Martha, but nobody answered the door so she climbed the fire escape to bang on the bedroom window, and saw her hanging.”
Micki’s brows went up. “She went to all the trouble to climb the fire escape?”
Jack’s lips twitched. “Three guesses as to the plants she was so attached to.”
“I thought the same thing,” Noah admitted. “But I bet she got rid of any pot she was growing on her windowsill before she called 911. Let’s finish up here. I’ve already searched the bedroom and bath. You take the kitchen, I’ll take the living room.”
Noah was searching Martha Brisbane’s empty desk drawers when Jack came in from the kitchen, a can of cat food in his hand. “The vic had a cat,” he said.
“There weren’t any cats here,” Noah said and Jack frowned.
“A multiple murderer and a missing cat. Not good. You finding anything?”
“Nothing, and nobody’s desk is this clean. Let’s see the neighbor, get a next of kin.”
“You talk to the neighbor,” Jack said. “I’ll go door to door and find anyone who may have seen her more recently than two weeks ago.”
Sunday, February 21, 8:20 p.m.
Dell stretched out his hand. “Gimme the zoom.”
Harvey shook his head. “You should have brought your own tools.”
Dell shifted in the passenger seat. “They’ve been in there a long time.”
“Means it’s a big case,” Harvey said. “Bigger the case, harder they fall.”
“Sonsofbitches,” Dell muttered. “That article made them look like damn Messiahs.”
Harvey heard the hate in his son’s voice. He felt the same. “Which is why we’ll show the world the truth. Which is why you won’t be taking that gun out of your pocket.”
Dell’s jaw tightened. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t, not till now. But it seemed like the kind of damn fool thing you would have done. You shoot, and they become martyrs on top of being heroes. And you go to prison.” He shot Dell a glare. “I lost one son. I don’t want to lose another. We’ll be patient. We’ll watch and take pictures and prove exactly what kind of men they are.”
“They deserve to die,” Dell said.
“Of course they do. But once we show the world what they really are, they’ll go to prison.” Harvey’s brows lifted. “Do you know what happens to cops in prison?”
Dell’s smile was a mere baring of teeth. “They’ll wish they were dead.”
Sunday, February 21, 8:25 p.m.
Noah placed his mini recorder on Sarah Dwyer’s coffee table. “So I don’t have to take notes,” he said when she eyed the recorder. “How well did you know Martha?”
“I’d see her occasionally in the laundry room. We weren’t friends.”
“But you gave her a key to your apartment, so you must have trusted her.”
“She was a lady in my building,” Dwyer said impatiently. “Sometimes we talked.”
Noah watched her wring her hands. “You seem agitated, ma’am.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I just flew in from Hong Kong and haven’t slept in twenty-four hours.” She pointed to a small hothouse on her dining room table. “I get home, find my prize orchids dead, and my neighbor deader. And you have the nerve to accuse me?”
“No one’s accusing you.” Jetlag and shock could account for her nerves, and fury over dead orchids could have sent her up a fire escape. “What did Martha do?”
“She was a computer consultant. I’m pretty sure she worked out of her apartment.”
Noah thought about the empty desk. No papers, no CDs. Only the computer. Odd that a consultant who’d worked out of her home would have no evidence of work.
“In any of your conversations, did she seem depressed or afraid?”
“No. Usually we talked about how much we hated Mrs. Kobrecki. She’s the building manager. Kobrecki and Martha did not get along.”
He’d paged Mrs. Kobrecki several times, with no returned call. “Why not?”
“Kobrecki said Martha was a pig. Martha took exception. That’s all I know. If you want more, you’ll need to talk to Mrs. Kobrecki.” She grimaced. “Or her grandson.”
“Why don’t you like her grandson?” Noah asked.
“He’s a creep. Once I caught him taking my lingerie out of the dryer and sniffing it. I made sure never to do laundry at night again. He only seems to come around at night.”
“What’s his name?”
“Taylor Kobrecki. Why?”
“Just gathering the facts, ma’am. Do you know Martha’s next of kin?”
“Her mom. She’s in a nursing home, in St. Paul.”
Noah stood, giving her his card. “Thanks. If you remember anything, please call me.”
“What is this?” she asked suspiciously. “Did Martha kill herself?” Noah smiled vaguely. “We’re just following procedure, Miss Dwyer.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “I’ll have my gun loaded and next to my bed tonight.”
“Anything?” Jack asked, meeting him as he left Dwyer’s apartment.
“Bupkiss. You get a next of kin?”
“Nursing home, St. Paul. You get any calls back from the building manager?”
“Nope. I couldn’t find any tenants who seemed to care for her.”
“She has a grandson.” Noah’s brows went up. “Panty fetish.” “Interesting. I wonder if Mr. Panty Fetish has a record.”
“I’ll run the grandson, you find the mom. Call and I’ll meet you at the nursing home.”
“What about Gus Dixon’s case reports?”
“Records said they’d have everything pulled when we got back to the station.”
Jack checked his watch with a sigh. “No dessert for me tonight.” Noah gritted his teeth. “You get too much dessert, partner.”
Jack snorted. “This from the man who hasn’t had dessert in how long?”
Noah shook his head. Everyone saw that Jack was a train wreck. Everyone but Jack. “Just find Brisbane’s mother. I’ll meet you there.”
“I’ll call Abbott,” Jack said, “and give him a heads up.”
Abbott was their boss. “I already did, while you were having your ‘quickie dessert.’ ” Jack’s eyes flashed, his lie called out. “And no, I didn’t tell him you weren’t there.”
Jack let out a careful breath. “I owe you one.”
Noah met Jack’s eyes, held them. “Don’t make me sorry, Jack. Please.”
Jack looked away. “I’ll call you when I find Brisbane’s mother.”
Sunday, February 21, 8:45 p.m.
The crowd was cheering at the largest of Sal’s flat-screen TVs. It was college hoops and home team star Tom Hunter had the ball. Not much more needed to be said.
Eve watched her oldest friend fly across the screen, dropping the ball through the hoop like it was nothing. A cheer shook the room and Eve rocked back on her heels.
“Yes,” she whispered, then jumped when a stream of cold beer ran up her sleeve. She jerked the overflowing pitcher out from under the tap and shook her sleeve with a grimace. Careless. She’d have to let it dry, as there was no time to change.
Tonight’s other bartender hadn’t shown. The line at the bar had been unending, but so far, no one was complaining. As long as the home team kept winning, that shouldn’t change. As long as the team kept passing to Tom Hunter, winning was assured.
“Your friend’s got a real gift,” Sal said behind her, quiet approval in his voice.
Eve jumped. For a man with a bad leg, Sal moved with surprising stealth. Then again, the bar was so noisy that she couldn’t hear herself think. Tonight, that was good.
“I know,” she said. She’d known Tom was gifted the first time she’d seen him play on a crumbling blacktop in a poor Chicago neighborhood. She’d been fourteen, Tom ten, both older than their years. She’d been a runaway, and in a different way, so had he.
They’d become friends, raised under the sheltering wings of three amazing Chicago women who had become Eve’s family. But her bond with Tom went far deeper.
Tom was one of the few who truly understood Eve’s nightmares, because the same monster haunted his. Both of them bore scars inflicted by Tom’s biological father, Rob Winters. But now they were both past all that. Reinvented.
Tom was the reason she was here, in Minneapolis. When he’d been awarded a basketball scholarship to one of the country’s top schools, he’d challenged her to come with him, to take her life back. To come out of the dark and start anew.
And she had. Now Tom was on his way to becoming a basketball legend, like his adopted father, Max Hunter. And I’m finally out of the darkness and into the light. “Tom makes it look easy,” she said. “Size fourteen feet should not be able to move like that.”
“I’m not talking about his game,” Sal said. “I’m talking about his talk to Josie’s kids.”
Eve glanced up at him, puzzled. Sal’s wife, Josie, was a high school guidance counselor in one of Minneapolis’s tougher neighborhoods. “When was this?”
“Last week. He said he planned to go to all the high schools, to tell kids to stay in school. Promised Josie’s kids he’d be back to play a game with their team, for the ones that stuck it out. The kids are still talking about him,” he said and Eve smiled, touched.
“It’s like Tom to do something like that without bragging. He comes from good stock.”
Sal lightly knocked his shoulder against hers. “You come from the same place.”
“Not exactly.” Tom’s mother, Caroline, was one of the amazing women who’d raised her. Eve had no idea where her own mother was, doubted she was still alive. “But I’ve been lucky enough to be taken in by good folks everywhere I go.”
She finished filling a second pitcher, lifting both into the customer’s hands. She’d stopped gritting her teeth against the pain. It was a constant throb now, but she thought she’d been hiding it pretty well. Until Sal nudged her aside.
“Ice your hand,” he said, then shot down her protest with a warning look. “Do it.”
“Yes, sir,” she said meekly and filled a bag with ice, wincing as she placed it on her hand. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Rich was supposed to be on with me tonight.”
“He called in sick.” Sal’s hands made quick work of the waiting orders. “Why are you here? Callie was on tonight.”
“She had a date.” Who’d finally shown up with a dozen roses and a story of a client who’d gotten himself arrested in an afternoon hockey brawl.
Sal frowned. “You worked every day last week.”
“I need the money. The leak in my roof is worse,” she said, but he shook his head.
“No, you need to go out on your own dates. You’re too pretty to hide in this bar.”
Being called “pretty” still startled her. Being accused of hiding, however, could not be borne. “I don’t hide,” she said more sharply than she’d intended. “Not anymore.”
She knew Sal studied her face even though she kept her eyes averted. For years people had stared at her face when they thought she didn’t see, but she’d always been aware of the horrified stares and the whispers. At least people didn’t do that anymore and for that reason alone her plastic surgeon should be a nominee for sainthood.
“I’m sorry,” Sal said. “It’s just that you work so hard here, then you go home and study, then go to school. And any moment you have free you spend in that Fantasy Island computer game of yours, what with its aviators and orgies. It’s not natural.”
That “Fantasy Island” computer game was really called Shadow-land, an online virtual playground. There was no Mr. Roarke in a crisp white suit, but like the old TV show, it was a place where adults could pretend to be anyone they wanted to be, interacting with millions of players all over the world while pursuing virtual fantasies.
Eve discovered Shadowland’s lure after the assault that had taken her life, literally and figuratively. The virtual world had been more than a game. It was a vital link to the outside world from which Eve, scarred and ashamed, had hidden for too many years.
Thankfully those dark years were gone. Like Tom Hunter, she’d reinvented herself. Shadowland was no longer an escape, but a tool for her graduate research.
At least it had started out that way. But the tool of her research had become a glitzy, gaping black hole, sucking her subjects into its virtual world of fantasy faster than she could grab them. The research that started out with such therapeutic potential had somehow become a trap, luring and endangering the very people she’d sought to help.
“It’s not ‘aviators,’ ” she said to Sal, irritated. “It’s ‘avatars.’ The characters are avatars. And where are you getting this orgy stuff?”
Sal’s eyes twinkled and she knew he’d poked at her on purpose. “I imagine that would be a lot of men’s fantasy. But not mine,” he added quickly. “Josie wouldn’t like it.”
“I’m sure,” Eve said dryly. Then she shrugged. “Besides, I’m not wasting my time playing computer games. Shadowland’s for my thesis, and you know it.”
Sal’s eyes stopped twinkling. “Exactly my point. Even when you play a game, you’re working. When was the last time you went on a date?”
Five years, eleven months, and seven days ago. That the amount of time should come back to her so quickly, after all this time, was… terrifying.
“I thought so,” Sal said quietly when she said nothing. “You’ve been under so much stress lately. This project of yours is putting dark circles under your eyes. I want you to take some time off. Take a vacation. Go to Florida and get some sun.”
Eve tossed the ice bag into the sink and started mixing a martini, the usual drink of the next customer in line. “Vacations take money, Sal. I don’t have any.”
“I’ll loan you some,” he said simply. “Tell me what you need.”
Abruptly she put the shaker down, her heart in her throat. “Damn, I hate it when you’re nice. Why can’t you be a mean boss?” Swallowing back what would have been embarrassing tears, she patted his beefy shoulder. “Keep your money. I’m fine.”
He shook his head. “You’re not fine. You’re worried. I see it in your eyes.”
She finished the martini and started with the next order. “I wish everyone would stop looking into my eyes,” she muttered, Callie’s observation about Noah Webster still fresh. She looked for a subject change and found it in the magazine Callie had left behind. “Jack Phelps was in here tonight, but he left before I could ask him to sign the MSP cover.”
“I heard it was more like he got called out,” Sal remarked mildly. “By Webster.”
She turned and stared at his profile. “How did you know that?”
His sideways glance was almost amused. “I know what goes on in my own bar, Eve. I’m surprised it’s taken Webster this long. There was a pool, you know-how long Web would put up with Phelps before he requested a transfer or cleaned Jack’s clock.”
The mental image of such an altercation left Eve disturbingly aroused. “Who won?”
“Nobody. Webster’s outlasted all of our predictions. Man’s either a saint or a fool.” He slanted another glance her way, this one annoyed. “Maybe both.”
Eve thought of the parting words Noah had uttered with grim resignation, more a good-bye than a thank-you. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t think he’s coming back.”
Which was for the best. She didn’t have time for anything more than work, school, and her Fantasy Island computer game. Not true. It wasn’t the time she didn’t have. It was the heart. And various other internal organs that made a huge difference.
Sal sighed. “I’m sorry, honey.”
She made herself smile. “Don’t be.” She poured the martini and reached for an olive, relieved to find the canister empty. She needed a minute to herself. For just a moment or two, she needed to hide. “We’re out of olives. Hold the fort. I’ll get them.”
Sunday, February 21, 9:10 p.m.
Finally. The Hat Squad finally knew they had a homicide. It had taken them long enough. Three homicides, carefully staged. At least they’d seen it with Martha Brisbane.
He hadn’t realized how impatient he’d grow, waiting for them to engage. But as frustrating as the wait had been, the Hat Squad’s ineptitude better furthered his goal-to see them humiliated, degraded, their stature in the community obliterated.
To see stripped away that infuriating self-importance they wore along with their badges and guns. And their hats. He wanted each of those hat-wearing, knuckle-scraping Neanderthals to see themselves for what they really were. Worthless failures.
Which was precisely why he’d staged these murders as suicides.
He’d known they’d miss the first victim, perhaps even the second. That they’d be so eager to close a suicide that they’d miss the clues he’d left behind. He didn’t know what had finally tipped them off, whether it was that they’d finally seen the clues or because they’d finally connected Martha to the other two. Regardless, they would soon know that there had been others, that through their carelessness they had missed two homicides.
Now they were on victim three of his six, halfway through the game already.
Because they had God complexes, they would blame themselves. They would know that if they’d been smarter, quicker, competent, they would have seen victim number one hadn’t killed herself. That they might have prevented the deaths of the others.
They’d begin to second-guess themselves, and each other. And as the body count climbed, all that they believed they were, the mirage of strength they’d built of their own hubris would disappear. Because their strength had never been.
He would move on, stronger through their weakness. And he alone would know the truth, because they’d never find the one who’d brought demise to their public façade.
But enough of that for now. They’d finally discovered Martha Brisbane, aka victim number three of his six, aka Desiree. The game had officially begun.
On to victim four. He opened his laptop and logged in to his new hunting ground. There was a great deal to be said about the supposed anonymity of Shadowland’s virtual “world.” His victims were there to play, their guard down. In the virtual world they could say and do things they’d never dream of doing in the real world. He could earn their trust more easily because they believed he didn’t know who they really were.
But he knew. It was why he’d chosen these particular six out of the millions online.
He knew their names, addresses, occupations, marital status, and-of great personal value-their phobias, their worst fears. He’d tailored each experience to the victim, so although he hadn’t put his hands around their throats or allowed himself release, he’d been able to stoke the first three to more intense terror than he’d ever achieved with his hookers.
In the past, the fears had been only in his victims’ minds, a byproduct of the ketamine he’d used to sedate them. Not so with these six. They played in the virtual world, but he’d make certain they died terrified in the real one.
His first of six had been so terrified of small spaces. After minutes in a box, Amy had been hysterical. Pulling that twine around her neck as her heart had thundered, her body unable to flee… It had taken real discipline to keep from losing control.
He’d managed to conjure the memory of her terror later, when he was back at home, alone. But his climax was only a pale shadow of what it would have been had he taken it as his first of six gasped her last. But one had to make sacrifices for the greater goal.
Samantha, his second of six, had been afraid of being buried alive. He’d had a bad moment when he thought she’d passed out, lying under feet of dirt, a snorkel her only access to air. He wanted her conscious when he killed her, completely aware. To his relief she’d struggled like an animal when he’d unearthed her. It had been magnificent.
Martha… not so much. She hadn’t been that afraid of water. So he’d made her pay in other ways. One had only to look at her apartment to know she was obsessive about the stuff she’d accumulated. Excepting her computer, nothing was of value, but its loss induced nothing less than sheer panic. So he’d forced her to throw it all away.
And she’d loved her cat. Those threats had resulted in extreme disturbance.
When he put Martha back in the water, he finally achieved terror. By the end, she’d begged him to kill her. He rolled his eyes. By the end, he’d been happy to oblige.
Christy Lewis would be number four of six. He had high hopes for Christy. Oh, yesssss. He chuckled aloud. Christy’s phobia was especially intense.
“Gwenivere, are you online tonight?” Of course she was. She always was. Christy wasn’t Gwenivere any more than Martha had been Desiree. But Shadowland’s motto said it all. Sometimes you want to go where no one knows your name. “Except me.”
Gwenivere was at Ninth Circle, the virtual club she visited every night. Here she was a former Miss Universe, a pianist as well as an avid dancer and witty conversationalist.
Shadowland was truly a fantasyland. Gwenivere, he typed. I’ve missed you.
Christy’s avatar smiled at him. Her avatar had one of Pandora’s nicer faces. He also had invested in a quality face and body-builder physique for his own avatar. Pandora’s Façades Face Emporium had good stock and wasn’t nearly as expensive as some of the other avatar designers.
After all, one had to look one’s best when hunting shallow, narcissistic fantasy addicts. But one also had to save a little cash for expenses. Like his Ninth Circle bar tab or his account at the Casino Royale’s most elite poker table.
Long time no see, Christy typed back. Where have you been?
Waiting for someone to find Martha Brisbane, he thought.
His avatar took the bar stool Christy had saved, his long legs easily allowing his feet to touch the floor. He’d chosen Pandora’s tallest, most muscular model because that’s what would most easily attract his prey. As the hunter, he had to choose the best bait, even when it sickened him.
Off on business, he typed. You know, bought an island, built a resort, made a million. Can I buy you a drink?
Christy’s avatar smiled again. Oh, maybe just one.
He’d chat with her awhile, get her talking. It never took more than a few minutes for Christy to abandon her Gwenivere persona and become herself. Once he’d “slipped,” telling her he lived near Minneapolis. She’d been surprised, revealing that she did, too.
Of course she did. That’s one of the reasons he’d picked her.
She’d suggested they meet several times, but he’d always put her off. He’d still been waiting for Martha to be found. Tonight he’d suggest they meet, just for coffee.
Just to talk. They always fell for it. Every single time. So why change what worked?
Sunday, February 21, 9:55 p.m.
“Normally we don’t allow visitors this late,” the nurse said.
“We’re sorry. It took longer to find Mrs. Brisbane than we expected,” Jack said.
“If Mrs. Brisbane is asleep, you’ll have to come back tomorrow. Department policy.”
“We understand,” Noah said. Martha Brisbane had chosen a nice place for her mother, he thought. Must’ve run Martha a pretty chunk of change.
Noah thought of his own mother who wintered in Arizona because of her health. Between his dead father’s police pension and a sizable percentage of his own salary, he’d settled her pretty comfortably. It was a financial sacrifice, but she was his mom and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He imagined Martha had felt the same.
“Will getting this news about her daughter’s death affect her heart?” Noah asked.
“It might, if she had one,” the nurse said, then sighed. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” She opened the door, revealing a woman who nearly disappeared against the white sheets. “Mrs. Brisbane, these men are detectives. They’re here to talk to you.”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “What about?” she demanded sharply.
Noah had lost the toss. “I’m Detective Webster and this is my partner, Detective Phelps,” he said, keeping his voice as gentle as possible. “We’re here about your daughter, Martha. She’s dead, ma’am. We’re very sorry for your loss.”
Mrs. Brisbane’s mouth pinched as if she’d eaten something sour. “How?”
They’d agreed to keep Martha’s death a suicide until the ME filed his report. That said, they were questioning witnesses assuming Dr. Gilles would confirm a homicide.
“It appears she killed herself,” Noah said.
“Then she got what she deserved. The wages of sin is death, Detective. It’s as simple as that.” And with that Mrs. Brisbane closed her eyes, dismissing them.
“Whoa,” Jack mouthed silently, then cleared his throat. “Ma’am, we have a few more questions, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind,” Mrs. Brisbane snapped, not opening her eyes. “Make them leave. Now.”
“You have to leave.” In the hallway the nurse shrugged. “That was pretty mild.”
“ ‘She got what she deserved,’ was mild?” Jack asked, incredulous. “Hell.”
“Mrs. Brisbane didn’t approve of Martha,” she said, “and I have no idea why.”
“Was this disapproval something new?” Noah asked.
“No. It’s been that way since she got here, about six months ago.”
“When was the last time Martha came in to visit her mother?” Jack asked.
“At least a month ago. Martha would leave looking like a whipped pup. I tried to help but Mrs. Brisbane complained. I got a warning not to ask again. I wish I knew more.”
“ ‘The wages of sin is death,’ ” Jack mused when they were back in the parking lot.
“The Bible, book of Romans,” Noah said. “My uncle was a minister.”
Jack frowned. “Your uncle’s a retired cop.”
“That’s Brock’s father, on my father’s side. My minister uncle was my mother’s older brother.” He’d been dead five years now and Noah missed his guidance. Missed him.
“Whatever. Brisbane’s mother knew something. We have to try her again tomorrow. Assuming whoever did this did it once before, it stands to reason they’ll do it again.”
“So let’s see what Martha and Dix’s vic had in common before he has a chance.”
Sunday, February 21, 10:55 p.m.
“Lindsay?” Liza Barkley locked the front door. No one answered. She so hoped Lin would come tonight. It was only a high school play, but she’d worked hard on her role.
But Liza knew her sister was working her ass off to pay the rent. And the gas and the groceries, all the while insisting Liza spend her time studying. Keep your grades up. Get a scholarship. They had no savings left for college, every dime gone to doctors who hadn’t been able to save their mother anyway. After a year, it still hurt. I still miss her.
Now Lindsay had cleaned office building toilets all night, every night so they could survive. One day it’ll be my turn to pay the bills.
She shivered. It was so cold in their apartment she could see her breath. But heat cost money, so she pulled on two more sweaters and snuggled under a pile of blankets, setting the alarm for five-thirty. She still had a little homework to finish and Lindsay would just be getting home by then, tired and hungry. I can do trig and fry eggs at the same time, she thought sleepily and drifted off.
Sunday, February 21, 11:30 p.m.
Eve curled up in her favorite chair, grateful Sal had let her off early. She’d come home, logged into Shadowland, and sent her avatar straight to Ninth Circle, the bar and social center. It was, as usual, dark, smoky, and teeming with avatars.
Desiree, be there. Be in your normal spot, doing whatever it is you do. Or did. It had been a week since Martha Brisbane’s avatar had been seen in Ninth Circle. Maybe Martha was on a real-world vacation, but Eve didn’t think so.
If Martha didn’t show up soon… I’ll have to do something. But what?
Eve could see herself now, filing a missing person report on an imaginary person who dwelt in a Fantasy Island computer game. The cops would think she was nuts.
For now, she could only keep a virtual eye on Martha and the others, and she wasn’t supposed to be doing even that. She wasn’t supposed to know the names of her subjects. Double-blind tests were not to be broken. But she had, and wasn’t sorry.
Just worried. And wincing from the cacophony blasting from Ninth Circle’s stage where a computer-animated band “performed.” Ninth Circle’s “band” was probably one middle-aged man with a synthesizer, but he wasn’t hurting anyone. Some objected to his cover of AC/DC, but those snobby rock purists could turn down the volume.
Eve muted the sound. She was one of those purists. When did I become… old?
Five years, eleven months, and seven days ago. That she’d remembered it twice in one night made her angry. But she’d put it behind her. Mostly. Sometimes.
No, you haven’t, Evie, whispered the voice in the back of her mind, annoyingly logical. Smug bitch. And she wasn’t Evie anymore. She’d left Evie behind in Chicago.
“I’m Eve now,” she said aloud, just to hear the sound of her own voice. It was too quiet in her apartment tonight. With the Ninth Circle band muted, the only sound was the constant dripping of water into the pots she’d placed below the leaks in her roof.
I’ve gotta get that fixed before I lose my mind. But her scum-sucking landlord ignored her repeated requests for roof repair. Myron Daulton had inherited the house from his mother, but none of her responsibility for her tenants, all of whom had finally had enough and left. Eve was the last holdout.
If Myron forced her out, he’d be able to sell. Developers were buying these old houses, refurbing them, then flipping them for big bucks. Myron didn’t deserve a dime. He’d never visited his mother. Never called on her birthday. Sometimes made her cry.
Eve had loved old Mrs. Daulton dearly and she’d be damned before she let Myron make even one penny off his mother. Eve had fixed the plumbing, dealt with the mice problem, and even replaced the garbage disposal. But a roof was a much bigger deal.
I’m not going to move. So she’d have to figure out how to fix the roof herself, too. She turned the volume of the band back up to drown out the constant dripping. Get to work, Eve. Find Desiree and Gwenivere so you can concentrate on your day job.
Sal’s filled her evenings, but her day job was not failing grad school. She had a ten-page Abnormal Psych paper due in ten hours. I shouldn’t be in Shadowland, spying on my test subjects. But she felt a responsibility to Desiree, Gwenivere, and all the others.
Many of them were older than she. Chronologically, anyway. All had signed releases before participating in her study, but Eve felt compelled to keep them safe. She figured she came by the compulsion honestly. It wasn’t possible to grow up with a bevy of meddling social workers without some of their nurturing overprotectiveness rubbing off.
Eve guided her own avatar through the virtual dancers, searching for the ones she’d come to find. Her heart sank when, once again, she saw Desiree’s corner table. Empty.
She moved to the next “red-zone” case-slinky, sexy Gwenivere, aka Christy Lewis, real-world secretary by day, dancer extraordinaire by night. Hours and hours every night and lately, during the day as well. Christy had been escaping into the game from her computer at work. Christy had confessed it last week, on one of her frequent visits to Pandora’s shop. If her boss found out, Christy Lewis would be fired.
Eve did not want that on her head. She was worried enough about Martha Brisbane. Martha’s Desiree had been a regular both at Ninth Circle and at Pandora’s Façades Face Emporium, Eve’s virtual avatar shop. Desiree had come every week to check Eve’s inventory of “Ready-to-Walk” avatars as well as her assorted mix-and-match body parts. Martha had upgraded her avatar’s face six times in the last three months.
Up until a week ago, Martha Brisbane had been a resident of Shadowland an average of eighteen hours a day. Eighteen. Considering the woman had to sleep sometime, that didn’t leave much time for anything else. Martha was an ultra-user, one of the many who comprised the negative control group of Eve’s study.
They’d had so many applicants they’d had to turn gamers away. Too many people lived their lives in Shadowland. Like I did, Eve thought. She desperately wanted to bring those people back to the real world. Into the sunlight. Like I did.
Hey, honey, can I buy you a drink?
Eve stopped scanning the crowd and frowned at the message at the bottom of her screen. She maneuvered her camera, staring into a nice face. Quality merchandise, if she did say so herself, and she did. She had, after all, designed it herself.
But the gamer wouldn’t know that. Tonight she wasn’t Pandora, the avatar designer who only hung out at Façades. Tonight she was her new character, Greer, the private investigator. Tonight Greer was searching for Christy Lewis and had no time to play.
Sorry, but I’m not interested, she typed back.
Then why are you here? he asked logically. This was, after all, the place to hook up.
Really not interested. Good night, she typed. She turned away and resumed scanning the crowd, hoping rudeness was a language he better understood.
Ah, there she was, Gwenivere, aka Christy Lewis. Christy was five-two, and while her real-world face was pleasant, she wasn’t gorgeous. Not true for Gwenivere, a six-foot blonde with a very expensive face. One of Eve’s, or Pandora’s, finest designs.
Gwenivere was dancing with a very handsome avatar, one of Claudio’s designs. Claudio was the best. Which was fine. Eve had started Pandora’s Façades to observe her subjects without them knowing she did so.
Without anyone knowing she did so. Especially Dr. Donner, her graduate advisor.
She winced. If Donner found out… That didn’t even bear consideration because if it ever happened, all her research would be nullified. She would probably be kicked out of the grad program. Expelled from Marshall University. And that could not happen. She’d worked too hard to come into the sunlight, to establish a real life for herself.
But at what cost? She’d believed in this research when she first started.
Now… Now she wasn’t so sure. But that wasn’t something she could resolve tonight. Christy was okay, flirting as usual. Eve had five more red-zone cases, three here in the Ninth Circle bar. Two others hung out in the Casino Royale, dancing and playing poker. She’d check up on them, then get busy on her Abnormal paper, the topic of which was the pathology of serial killers.
Eve flinched when she realized she was tracing the scar that she could now barely see, but still couldn’t feel. She didn’t need to research. She had all the background any professor could ever want. It was always in her mind, that voice that still taunted. It was, after five years, eleven months, and seven days, still written on her face.
Sunday, February 21, 11:55 p.m.
Noah locked his front door, worn. He and Jack had spent an hour going over the missed homicide, trying to glean any detail that would connect her to Martha Brisbane but so far, nothing. The two were connected in the most obvious way, of course. They’d been killed in the same exact way. But why? And who? And why those two women?
Then he and Jack read months of suicide reports, praying there would be no similar scenes. They’d found none, but after reading all of those accounts of suicide, Noah’s relief was mixed with sadness and a feeling of hopelessness he was finding difficult to shake. There but for the grace of God, he’d thought more than once.
He sat wearily on his bed. Jack had no understanding, no compassion for those who’d taken their own lives. But I do. I understand all too well.
One night, ten years ago, he’d been so close… He’d been sitting right here on the edge of his bed, his revolver in one hand, their picture in the other.
His eyes strayed to their picture on his nightstand, the frame worn smooth by years of rubbing. The boy was only two and looked just like the woman who held him. A woman who, twelve long years later, could still make him wish for just one more day. If only.
It hadn’t been twelve years the night he’d decided to end it. It had only been two years since the night his car spun out of control, taking his world with it. Two years that he’d sunk deep into the darkness and crawled deeper into a bottle.
He’d been drunk that night he’d held his gun in his hand. Almost drunk enough to pull the trigger and end the pain that never seemed to fade. But he hadn’t been quite drunk enough. It had been Brock that he’d called, Brock who’d come, Brock who’d dragged his ass to AA. Brock who’d saved his godforsaken life.
Ten years, Noah thought. Sober for ten years. But there were times, unguarded moments when the pain still speared deep. Tonight was one of those times.
It was no longer grief as much as loneliness. The house was so quiet. Too quiet. Brock had Trina and the kids. What do I have? Or who?
He picked up the novel he kept next to his bed for nights he couldn’t sleep, pulled out the glossy postcard he’d shoved between the pages. It was Sal’s holiday card. Sal and Josie stood in the middle, surrounded by all their employees. Sal’s arm was solidly around Eve’s shoulders, as if holding her in place for the picture. Her lips curved in her little sideways smile, but her dark eyes were serious. Too serious.
Eve had drawn him the moment he’d laid eyes on her, and he’d convinced himself to approach her a million times. But in the end it was his own voice he heard. Hi, I’m Noah, and I’m an alcoholic. It was a hell of a burden to ask any woman to share.
Anyone with eyes could see that Eve bore her own burdens. There was no way he’d add his to her shoulders. His heart heavy, he put Sal’s holiday card in his drawer.
Tonight, after reading all those suicide accounts, he’d wanted a drink so goddamn bad… If he’d had any booze in the house, he’d be halfway to drunk this very moment. If the craving got any worse, he’d be calling Brock for a midnight workout. A few rounds in the boxing ring usually got him through the worst of it.
Somehow Eve didn’t strike him as much of a boxer. He thought of her slender hands and the pain in her eyes every time she lifted a heavy pitcher to the bar. A million times he’d nearly jumped out of his chair at Sal’s and done the lifting for her, but he hadn’t. Because along with her pain was a determination, and then satisfaction that she’d done it. Determination and satisfaction, he understood.
Brock had told him that when Sal first hired her, one of her hands had been useless, but that she’d just worked faster with the good hand, somehow managing to keep up. She was a woman who’d been through a hell of her own. And persevered.
She deserved a hell of a lot more than… me. Brock was right. He played with fire every time he walked into that bar. He couldn’t go back to Sal’s. Not ever again. Which meant he wouldn’t see Eve, ever again. Which in the end, was for the best.
He would do his job. Two women, murdered. He would find out by whom, and why.
And then? And then he’d take one day at time, as he’d been doing for ten years.
Monday, February 22, 2:20 a.m.
Christy Lewis puckered her lips in a kiss, checking her lipstick and the rest of her reflection. The lipstick was new, just like the outfit she’d been saving for a night like this.
Her eyes were bright with anticipation. She’d never done anything like this before. Anything so naughtily tawdry. She’d met him in Shadowland, mingling in Ninth Circle. He’d said his name was John. She was pretty sure it wasn’t, just as she was pretty sure he wasn’t divorced. She wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was married with two point five kids and a dog. But she wouldn’t ask. She didn’t want to know.
He was in sales and traveled. She’d left the open invitation that if he was ever in the Twin Cities… Tonight he was. For just one night. The words “one-night stand” tickled her imagination. She’d never done one, not even in college when all of her friends did. She might not even do one tonight. It would depend on him, how he looked.
She didn’t expect him to look like his avatar. Who does? If we looked like our avatars, we’d have real lives.
But, if he was cute and clean, then why not? It had been a while since she’d had her watch wound. And men did it all the time. Her miserable ex-husband had. All the time.
So now it’s my turn.
And if “John” had a wife, two point five kids, and a dog? Christy’s shoulders sagged. She knew if he did, she couldn’t go through with it. She’d been the “injured party.”
But just maybe, he didn’t. She dropped her lipstick in her purse. Maybe he was telling the truth. And if not? She’d get out, drink a cup of coffee with someone who was flesh and bone. And then she’d come home alone, like she always did.
Finally. He’d thought she’d never leave. He watched Christy Lewis drive away, then pulled into her driveway. She lived out in the country, her nearest neighbor a quarter mile away. The location was logistically inconvenient to get to, but once they returned together later, there would be no need to tape her mouth closed as he’d done to the others. She could scream as long and loud as she wanted and no one would hear her.
And she would scream. Or maybe she’d be so terrified she’d go completely silent. One never knew how people would react when confronted with their worst fear. Either way, he had very high hopes for an intense experience.
He looked into his backseat with a smile. Christy Lewis’s worst fear was safely contained in a metal box with holes poked in the top. One couldn’t be too careful. He himself wasn’t terrified, but he wasn’t foolish either. He’d put the box in the house where it and its occupant could grow warm. The occupant of the box didn’t like the cold, hibernating this time of year. By the time he returned with Christy, the occupant of the box should be quite warm and quite… mobile.
He grabbed the box by its handle, gratified at the soft stirring that came from within. Excellent. Christy’s worst fear was waking. It would be hungry. Of course he’d planned for that. He grabbed a small cage from the floor, ignoring the high-pitched chatter.
He shivered deliciously, anticipating. This would be one to remember for a long time.
Monday, February 22, 2:40 a.m.
Brock dragged his forearm across his brow, clumsily wiping the sweat. “You good?”
Noah leaned against the ropes, panting. He was very nearly hollowed out. They’d set up the boxing ring in Brock’s basement years ago, along with free weights, punching bags, everything they needed for their own gym. Everything Noah needed to battle his way out of the bottle, away from the prying eyes of other cops at the department gym.
Noah had thrown more punches here than he wanted to count. It was a way to get through the gnawing need for a drink before it became a craving. Sometimes he used a punching bag, but when it got really bad, he needed something that punched back.
Brock had absorbed more of Noah’s punches than either of them wanted to count.
Noah exhaled slowly, considering. The gnawing need was still there. It was always there. But the worst of the craving had passed. “I think so.”
“Thank God,” Brock muttered. Spitting out his mouth guard, he straightened his back with a quiet groan and waggled his jaw. “You got me with that last one.”
Normally he and Brock were evenly matched, but tonight the craving had been especially vicious, its claws razor sharp. The dream woke him, left him shuddering in his bed like a frightened child. Then the craving had barreled out of the darkness like a freight train. It had been a long time since he’d come so close to giving in.
“I’m sorry.” Noah pulled at his gloves with his teeth, wincing when he got a good look at his cousin’s face. “I got your eye, too. God, Brock, I’m sorry. Dammit.”
“S’okay.” Brock tried to rip at his own gloves with his teeth, but stopped, grimacing from the pain in his jaw. “I’ve had worse. Not in a while, but I have had worse.”
“Shoulda’ kept your hands up.” Brock’s wife, Trina, rose from the basement stairs where she’d been sitting, hidden from their view. She reached over the ropes to pull off her husband’s gloves. “One of these days, you’re gonna really get creamed.”
Brock frowned down at her. “Don’t I get any sympathy?” he grumbled.
She lifted her chin to meet his eyes, unmoved. “I made you an ice pack.”
Noah almost smiled. Trina was one of his all-time favorite people. They’d gone through the academy together and he’d introduced her to Brock, toasted them at their wedding. He was godfather to two of their sons. A decorated cop, Trina was as close as any sister could ever have been. She knew all his faults and loved him anyway.
Trina turned, assessing Noah with eyes that missed very little. “Not that I mind watching two ripped guys without shirts duking it out in my basement, but what gives?”
Noah rubbed a towel over his face. “Bad dream,” he said shortly.
“Hm,” she said. She pulled a cold bottle of water from each of the deep pockets of her robe, tossing one to Noah. The other she pressed to Brock’s eye, which was already turning purple. “Ice pack for your jaw is upstairs. I put on a pot of coffee. Come.”
They followed her up to the kitchen table where Trina filled their cups and pressed an ice pack to Brock’s jaw. “Must have been one hell of a bad dream,” she said quietly.
“Yeah.” Noah dragged his palms down his face. “I caught a hanger tonight, but it was staged.” He knew he could tell these two anything and it would never leave the room. They were more than family, they were cops. “And it was the second one.”
“Not good,” Trina murmured. “You’re thinking serial?”
“Maybe. Jack and I went back to the station, combing the suicide reports to see if there were any more. Luckily there weren’t.”
Trina sipped at her coffee. “So what did you dream?”
Noah drew a breath. It was still so real. So disturbing. “That I was the hanger.”
“Upsetting,” she said matter-of-factly. “But you’ve had suicide dreams before and you’ve never messed up Brock’s face this bad.”
“It’s not that bad,” Brock mumbled and she patted his hand.
“Not from where I’m sitting, baby,” she said. She turned back to Noah. “So?”
“The victims had their eyes glued open. Grisly.” He shrugged. “In the dream I saw these dark eyes staring up at me.” Dark brown doe eyes, filled with pain.
“The victim’s?” she asked.
Noah shook his head, not wanting to say. “No. Just somebody I know.”
Brock’s eyes grew sharp. “Eve, then.”
Noah looked down at the cup in his hands. “Yeah.”
Trina sighed heavily. “So you did go to Sal’s tonight. You had me confused there for a minute. You normally only come over to punch on Brock on Monday nights.”
Noah barely fought the urge to fidget in his seat. “Well, I won’t be going back.”
“Glad to hear it,” Trina said cautiously. “What about Eve?”
“Not meant to be,” Noah said, ignoring the disappointment. “I’m moving on.”
“Really, now?” she asked, her tone deceptively mild. “Then I have a friend you’d like. She’s Joey’s kindergarten teacher. Really pretty and she likes those dark philosophers you like to read. Y’know, the ones that make you want to drown your head in a bucket.”
Brock looked away, but failed to hide his smirk.
Trina leaned forward, all charm and smiles. “I think I’ll invite her to dinner for you. You can bring a pie or something. How does tomorrow night look?”
Noah hated when Trina read him like a book. “Busy.”
“Tuesday? Wednesday? Busy?” She made a scoffing noise. “You’re a lousy liar.”
He frowned darkly. “I won’t go back to Sal’s. You have my word.”
“Good. But don’t lie to me about Eve. You don’t move on. You linger and wallow.”
“I do not,” he said, offended. “Brock?”
Brock shook his head. “I already got beat up once tonight.”
Trina threw a sympathetic glance at Brock before turning serious eyes on Noah. “You don’t have to go to a bar to see a bartender. She has a life outside of Sal’s.” She brightened, wryly. “I bet she even eats. I know. Why not invite Eve to dinner, instead?”
Noah clenched his teeth. “It isn’t meant to be, Tree. Just leave it. Promise me.”
Trina pushed away from the table, annoyed. “Fine. I promise. Satisfied?”
Not really. Part of him hadn’t wanted her to give up so easily. But Noah stood, kissed her cheek, and said what he needed to. “Yes. Go back to bed. I’m going home.”
“I’ll walk you to the door,” she said and Noah swallowed his sigh. This meant she had more to say. Dutifully Noah followed her to the door where she buttoned his coat as if he was one of her sons. She looked up, troubled. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation, and she smiled, but sadly.
“Tonight… you scared me, Noah. If you two hadn’t stopped when you did, I would have stopped you. You were so angry.”
He closed his eyes, shame washing through him. “I know.”
“You will always be welcome here, no matter what time of the day or night. But you can’t go after Brock like that again. He won’t say so because he’s too proud, but you could seriously hurt him. You were rocked tonight by that dream. But there was more to it than that.” She tugged on his coat. “Dammit, you look at me.”
He opened his eyes and swallowed hard. There was no accusation in her eyes, just love, fierce and sharp. “You’re not ready to move on, Noah. Eve’s touched something in you that you don’t want to walk away from, whether you want to admit it or not. And I think that’s what was pushing you tonight, not a dream and not this case.”
“I know,” he murmured, miserably. “But I don’t know what to do about it.”
Trina hugged him hard. “Trust yourself. You’re a good man, Noah Webster. You don’t deserve to be alone forever.” She gave him a shrewd look. “You’re not the only one with bad dreams. Brock and I see bad shit every day, just like you do.”
“So what do you do when you have dreams, Tree?”
“Sometimes I raid the fridge for anything chocolate. Sometimes I work out. And sometimes I just fuck Brock’s brains out.” He snorted a surprised laugh and she lifted a brow. “There’s something to be said for therapeutic sex. Maybe you should get some.”
Her words sent instant images of Eve, long and lithe, sliding her body down his. He thought of the yearning he’d seen in her eyes tonight, the need she’d tried so hard to hide. He shuddered, clenching his fists in his pockets. “I won’t drag her down with me.”
“Sometimes, Noah, it’s just out of your hands.”
“You promised,” he warned, but wearily and without bite.
“Yeah, I did. But sometimes fate steps in and kicks your ass. You think you know what she needs. Hell,” she scoffed, “you don’t even know what you need.”
“What I need is sleep.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Go, before you get sick.”
Monday, February 22, 4:00 a.m.
Christy had been sitting in the booth by the window for over an hour. She’d had five cups of coffee, having finished the waffles she’d ordered when the waitress got testy.
He didn’t dare go inside. Unlike the coffee shop where he’d watched Martha, in this diner he’d stick out like a sore thumb. The diner served all night, but most of their clients were truckers and the occasional hungry traveler. And Christy Lewis.
“Who is finally tired of waiting for John,” he murmured as she dug into her purse. She paid her bill before disappearing for several minutes, which he assumed was a trip to the ladies’ room. Reappearing with her face blotchy, which he assumed meant she’d indulged in a fit of tears, she walked to her car, her head down against the wind.
One hour, twenty minutes, and fifty-five seconds. So far Christy Lewis had waited longer than any of them. He might have enjoyed that fact, except that the car he was driving was too small, even for him. But the little car was part of the plan, just like the choice of this particular diner. More “clues” for the Hat Squad. It was going to drive them crazy. That Christy had consumed food while she’d waited seemed an unfair autopsy freebie, but he couldn’t change that now.
With a defiant tilt of her chin, she pulled down her visor mirror and slashed on fresh lipstick before capping the tube and throwing it hard at her windshield. He hoped her anger would carry her home faster. He got a shiver of anticipation, just thinking about what lay ahead, and pulled out of the diner’s parking lot behind her.
Monday, February 22, 4:35 a.m.
Christy slammed her car door, the noise echoing in the night. I am so stupid. How many times had she heard about lies online? You should know. You tell them yourself. That was different. That was Shadow-land. This was real life and he’d lied.
Maybe he was there. Maybe he took one look at you and ran the other way.
“Goddammit.” She stumbled up the sidewalk, tripping in the heels she’s spent next month’s grocery money on. You’re a stupid idiot, just like Jerry said. She struggled with her keys, hands shaking as her ex-husband’s voice rolled through her mind. Clumsy, ugly. You’ll never find anyone else willing to look at your face every morning.
He’s right. There’s nobody out there for somebody like me. She’d been suckered tonight, waited like a fool for an online asshole that never showed, who’d probably never intended to show. “John,” whoever he was, was probably laughing at her right now.
Just like Jerry had when she’d caught him with that slut. In my bed.
She shoved the front-door key into the lock, her eyes narrowing at a new thought.
“Jerry.” It made sense. Her ex knew computers, but he wouldn’t even have needed to hack in. She hadn’t logged out of Shadowland in God only knew how long. She’d changed the locks, but that wouldn’t have kept him out. He’d broken into the house. Her cheeks flamed. Read my Ninth Circle conversations. Why on earth had she saved them? So, like a loser, she could read them again and again, pretending to have a life.
“He set me up,” she hissed. “Sonofafuckingbitch set me up.”
She pushed the door open, furious. She’d get him, the lying, screwing SOB, if it was the last thing she- A hand clamped over her mouth and her heart froze. Jerry. Fury supplanted the fear. This was taking it too damn far. I’ll kill you for this.
Then fury evaporated away as she was viciously yanked back, her head smacking against a hard shoulder. Not Jerry, she thought wildly. It’s not Jerry.
“Hello, Gwenivere,” he crooned into her ear and she thrashed against him. Get away. Get away. She felt the jab of a needle into her neck. “Welcome to Camelot.”
She could hear him calmly counting back from ten as her body went numb. He let her go and she teetered for a split second before collapsing on the floor.
“Snakes,” she heard him say, from a distance. She was floating now. Get away. Must get away. But she couldn’t move. She heard him kneel beside her, felt his breath in her ear. “A pit of vipers slithering over your skin, Christy. No escape. No escape.”
No. No. Everywhere, they’re everywhere. It was a deep pit. Twisting snakes, all around. Hissing. Her heart pounded and cold sweat drenched her skin. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Oh God. One slithered across her foot, and she clenched her eyes shut. Another dropped from above to her shoulder and she screamed. Run. Get away.
Help me. Christy Lewis heard the shrieking and was suddenly aware it came from her own throat. She opened her eyes, heart pounding, lungs gasping for air. Just a dream. She was in her own living room. But not. Her eyes darted side to side as she took it in. Her furniture was moved. Pushed against the wall. She lunged. But not.
I can’t move. She struggled wildly, her mind fighting to clear the haze. No snakes, she told herself. Just a dream. But I still can’t move. Her arms hugged her body, her ankles burned like fire, her head… God, her head hurt. Stop. And think.
She blinked hard, but her living room was still changed. Her arms… She was sitting up, bound shoulder to waist, warm. Trapped. Horror flooded her mind as the mist cleared away. Her ankles were tied to her chair with rope and there was hideous pressure on her temples, like a… “A vise?” she whispered in disbelief.
“Indeed, my dear. And a straitjacket,” he said and it came back in a rush.
She’d gone to meet John. She’d waited for him, but he’d never come. But he was here. She jerked around to see, crying out at the shearing pain in her head.
“I suggest you not try to move,” he said dryly, still behind her.
“Why?” she begged, agonized. Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away.
“Maybe because your empty head is in a vise?” he said with contempt.
“No.” She wanted to sound angry, but instead she whimpered in fear. “Why me?”
“Because I needed you,” he said logically. “And because you’re here. And because I can. Pick one, it doesn’t matter which. Did you like the snakes, Christy?”
She shuddered. It was her very worst fear. How did he know? “Go to hell.”
He chuckled, sending another shiver racing coldly down her spine. “Ladies firssssst,” he whispered, hissing into her ear. Her insides rolled at the memory, at the total, immobilizing fear.
No. Stay focused. You have to get away. Pay attention. Remember important things to tell the police. When you get away. “They weren’t real,” she muttered.
“Those weren’t,” he agreed. “But he is.” A gloved hand came into her peripheral vision, pointing. She could see a gold ring through his opaque latex glove.
Remember the ring. Tell the cops about it.
But he is. His words suddenly registered as did the metal box on the floor. The size of a tool box, it had holes in the top. Tied to the latch was twine that ran along the floor, ending somewhere behind her. Behind her he moved and his hand reappeared in her line of vision, holding one end of the twine. He yanked and was then that she heard it.
A rattle. Ominous. Quiet. Her breath began to hitch. “Not happening. Not real.”
“Oh, he’s real,” he whispered, “and he’s hungry and he won’t like being disturbed. Shall we disturb him?”
“No,” she whimpered. She clenched her eyes closed but he forced one of her eyes open, pinching her eyelid hard. He smeared something cold under her eyebrow and quickly pressed her eyelid against it. Glue. She struggled to blink, and could not.
“You’ll watch,” he said, angry now. “Because I say you will.” He glued her other eye open, then brought something around her head. A cage. Inside was something white, and completely still. A mouse. “Not dead,” he said. “Blood’s still nice and warm. He’s sedated with the same drug I gave you. I wonder if he’ll be half as terrified as you.”
He took the mouse from the cage and placed it against her foot. She could feel its fur tickling her skin. She tried to flinch away, but her ankles were tied too tightly. He yanked the twine again. Again she heard the rattle. She panted, trying to fill her lungs.
Breathe. Can’t breathe. It’s coming. Run. She struggled, tried to draw a breath to scream, but all she could manage was a terrified mew. Trapped. I’m trapped.
He yanked the string again and the front of the box lowered with a clatter.
It lifted its head and stared. At me. Frozen, she could only stare back.
“It’s coming,” he whispered, his breath hot in her ear. “For you.”
Monday, February 22, 6:15 a.m.
Harvey Farmer was tired. He’d followed Noah Webster for hours, only to return home to an empty house. Dell was AWOL again. Unable to sleep, he was staring stonily at his front door when it opened. Dell closed it, surprise flickering in his eyes. “Where have you been?” Harvey asked, not kindly.
Abruptly Harvey lurched to his feet. “Don’t you talk to me like that, boy.”
Dell took a step back. “I’m not a boy. I can go where I like.”
Harvey’s eyes narrowed as he smelled leftover perfume. He grabbed his son’s arm, stunned when Dell grabbed it back. “Who is she?” Harvey growled.
Dell’s smile was tight. “No one you’ll ever meet. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
Harvey watched his son’s retreating back, his anger rising. “If you fuck up what we’re doing because of some slut…”
Dell didn’t stop. “I won’t. Now, I’ve had a long night. I’m going to sleep.”
Monday, February 22, 7:25 a.m.
Captain Bruce Abbott stopped at their desks. “You two are here early. Progress on the Brisbane investigation? Did you get the report on Dix’s victim? The first hanger?”
“Samantha Altman,” Noah said, “was thirty-five, lived alone, recently divorced and recently unemployed. She was found by her parents, who said she wasn’t depressed.”
“Parents always say that,” Abbott said. “It’s a coping mechanism.”
Jack rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wake up. “Dix is ripped up, Captain. He kept going over his scene, trying to figure out what he’d missed.”
“Dix did what most of us would have done,” Abbott said. “It quacked like a duck, so he called it a duck. Did he remember anything that wasn’t in his report?”
“Only that the parents swore the clothes weren’t hers,” Jack said. “Dix gave them back the dress and shoes. We’re hoping the Altmans haven’t thrown them out.”
“Any connections between the two women?”
“Not so far,” Noah said. “Martha was a little older, self-employed. Samantha was downsized from a manufacturing job and found two days after she died, by her parents. Martha was dead at least a week, but no one reported her missing. We didn’t find an address book, but whoever hung her probably took it. Her desk was too damn clean.”
“The lab’s going over her computer, checking emails, contacts,” Jack added. “She was a computer consultant, so we should at least find a client list on her PC.”
“Motive? Any suspects?”
“Martha’s mother knows something,” Noah said. “We’ll pay her another visit today.”
“And we still haven’t heard from Mrs. Kobrecki, the building manager,” Jack said.
“Grandmother of the panty pervert,” Abbott said.
“He’s got a jacket,” Noah said. “Three complaints from former building residents, all improper advances. Nothing came of them. It was always he said, she said.”
“Go get the ‘she said’ from the women who lodged the complaints. See if anything pops. And find out if the grandson would have any contact with the first victim.” Abbott hesitated. “So for the million-dollar question. Do we think there are any other victims?”
“No,” Noah said. “We’ve gone through the reports on all the suicides in the Twin Cities going back two years. No scenes resemble the two we’re dealing with.”
Abbott looked relieved. “That’s something, at least. Have you heard from the ME?”
“Not yet,” Jack said, “but we’re expecting to any moment. Ian normally starts autopsies after the morgue’s morning review. He knows this one’s a high priority.”
“Well, hurry it up. I don’t want the press getting wind of this until we know what’s what. We just got rid of all those damn reporters from the magazine.”
“I saw reporters last night,” Jack said. “They’ve been shadowing us for three weeks.”
“They’re shadowing everyone in the department.” Abbott pushed away from Jack’s desk. “Don’t do anything exciting and maybe they’ll go away.”
The phone rang and Jack picked up. “Ian’s got something,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Monday, February 22, 7:30 a.m.
Liza Barkley frowned at her cell. Lindsay had never come home. She hadn’t called and she wasn’t picking up. If her sister was going to be late, she always called.
Liza bit at her lip, wondering what to do. She didn’t know any of Lindsay’s friends anymore and had never called the cleaning service where she worked.
But if she didn’t leave the apartment now, she’d miss her bus. Maybe Lin met a friend for breakfast. Liza hoped so. Lindsay worked so hard, her social life had become more endangered than the blue whale, the subject of Liza’s second-period science test. She slipped her cell into her pocket. Call me, Lin. Let me know you’re okay.
Monday, February 22, 8:15 a.m.
He folded his newspaper. Martha’s suicide was way back in the Metro section, but it was there. Soon Martha’s murder would be headlines, maybe as early as tomorrow. That would depend on how skilled the ME was, he supposed. And then, he’d be front-page news, every day. Coverage would explode when they found Christy Lewis hanging from her bedroom ceiling. SERIAL KILLER STALKS WOMEN, the headline would read.
He’d have to keep clippings. He smiled. Frame and hang them in my basement.
That the dynamic duo had caught Brisbane’s case would only help. They were media darlings, after all. The press would hang on their every word, put every missed clue under the microscope. Then the headlines would change. POLICE CLUELESS.
He wondered how long it would take someone to find Christy Lewis. She’d be missed faster than Martha. Although she was divorced and her parents were deceased, she had a job and daily contact with people in the real world. Unlike Martha, who had lived in Shadowland.
Christy should be discovered by tomorrow when she failed to show up for work a second day. He didn’t have time to rest. He had to start preparing for his fifth of six.
Monday, February 22, 8:32 a.m.
“You work fast, Ian,” Noah commented. “I didn’t expect a ruling until later.”
“I don’t have anything official yet,” Ian Gilles said. “Where’s Jack?”
“Right here.” Jack came through the door, perturbed. “I got delayed outside by a reporter. Wanted to know why we had two CSU vans at a suicide last night.”
“What did you tell him?” Noah asked.
Jack shrugged. “ ‘No comment.’ What else could I say? So, what do you have, Ian?”
Ian tilted Brisbane’s head so that her throat was exposed. “I haven’t started the autopsy yet, but I thought you should see this. Right in the middle of the ligature marks is a needle puncture. The rope was placed precisely so the puncture would be hidden.”
“Injected with what?” Noah asked.
“Don’t know yet. Urine tox didn’t show anything. I’m expecting results from the blood test this afternoon. So far, no other obvious injuries, the X-rays show no broken bones, and I found no evidence of any sexual activity.”
“Did you check the suicide Dixon processed last week?” Noah asked.
“Janice did that exam. She’s at the national ME’s convention, but I read her report.”
“What do MEs do at a convention?” Jack asked. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”
“Probably not,” Ian said without a trace of humor. “Janice noted that establishing time of death was difficult as the deceased’s window was open.”
“Same as Martha,” Jack said, nodding toward the body on the table.
“Right. Samantha’s eyelids were glued open with super glue, same as this victim.”
“Didn’t that send up any alarms?” Jack asked, and Ian shrugged.
“We see people do weird things. All the other signs of suicidal hanging were there.”
“What about the puncture wound?” Noah asked. “Does Samantha have one?”
“I think so. Janice took a photo of Samantha’s ligature wounds. I blew it up. You lose resolution, but I’m pretty sure I saw a puncture wound. I’ll need to re-examine the body to be sure. Unfortunately we released the body to the funeral home a week ago.”
Jack grimaced. “Exhumation?”
Noah nodded, resigned. “How long to get an exam on Samantha Altman?”
“I’ll start as soon as the body arrives. I had the blood samples from her autopsy pulled from storage this morning and they’re already submitted for the same blood tests I ordered for Martha. That’s all I can do until I get the body back.”
Noah put on his hat. “We’re going to interview the Altman family today. We’ll grease the skids for the exhumation order. You’ll call us when Martha’s autopsy is finished?”
“Absolutely.” Ian pushed the gurney into the examination room.
“Next stop Altman family?” Jack said.
“I’ll drive.” They’d gotten to Noah’s car when his cell rang. “Webster.”
“It’s Abbott.” Who sounded displeased. “Brisbane’s suicide hit the papers and I just got a call from a reporter who said he would’ve called it a homicide on page one, but his editor wouldn’t allow it without corroboration. Apparently he got corroboration because he’s saying his next headline will be ‘More Than a Suicide.’ Which of you corroborated?”
“Neither. Jack was approached, but said ‘no comment.’ Who was this guy?”
“Name was Kurt Buckland. How close are you to having an official homicide ruling?”
“Ian’s doing the autopsy this morning, but he found signs that Brisbane was drugged. We’re going to interview the Altman family while Ian files for exhumation.”
“Good. I’ll give a statement as soon as Ian rules it a homicide. That’ll take some of the wind out of the reporter’s headline. Be back at four. Tell Micki to be here.”
“Will do. What about a shrink? We need to start a profile.”
“Carleton Pierce will be here at four. I’ve put Sutherland and Kane on standby.”
Noah dropped his cell in his pocket. “Let’s move. We have a deadline.”
Monday, February 22, 9:35 a.m.
Eve carefully placed the receiver in the cradle on her desk in the graduate office. “Fuck you, asshole,” she muttered.
A chuckle had her swiveling her chair. Callie sat behind her, laughing. “I knew you couldn’t hold it in. What was that all about, then?”
“I got a new leak in my roof, right over my bed. I moved my bed, but then it dripped into a bucket for the rest of the night. I didn’t sleep a wink.”
“You have to find a new place.” Callie brightened. “My building has a vacancy.”
“Your building costs twice as much as I can afford.”
“The concept is called a roommate.” Callie drew the word out. “My roommate and I split the rent and utilities and everybody is happy. You should get a roommate, too.”
“No.” After years of living with others, she wanted privacy. “My rent’s cheap.”
“Your rent is a gift. You’re just lucky that old woman liked you.”
Eve smiled sadly. “Mrs. Daulton liked everybody.”
“I know. And I know you miss her. How much longer till your lease runs out?”
“Six more months. And I’ll be damned if Myron Daulton gets his greedy little mitts on my house a second before that.”
“Um, Eve, it’s not your house. Legally, it’s his.”
“Greedy SOB, thinking he can run all his mother’s tenants out. Wouldn’t surprise me if he was up on the roof with an ice pick himself, making the damn leaks.”
“Now you’re sounding paranoid. So was the asshole on the phone the greedy SOB?”
“No, that was a roofer who does not fix roofs. He only talks to people buying new roofs. Who needs a brand-new roof, for God’s sake?”
“Sounds like you do. You shouldn’t be paying for repairs on somebody else’s house anyway. It’s not your responsibility. It might even be a lease violation.”
“Well, it’s moot, because I can’t get anyone to do it. I’m thinking that roofing would be a good skill to master. Lately I’ve done plumbing, some minor wiring…”
Callie’s eyes widened. “You’re not planning to fix your roof. You don’t like heights.”
“I like Myron less. I even called an old friend this morning to ask how I should do it.”
“What did he say?”
“I got his voicemail. He’ll call me back when he’s off shift.”
“You know him from the bar?”
“No, from back home. He’s a firefighter.”
“You touch your scar when you talk about Chicago,” Callie said quietly.
Eve yanked her hand from her cheek. “Which is why I don’t talk about it.”
“Don’t you miss them?” Callie asked. “Your family?”
Dana, Caroline, and Mia. The thought of them and their growing families, so far away, made Eve’s heart ache. Not a day went by that she didn’t miss them. “Yes. But I couldn’t stay.” To stay was to remember. To hide in the dark.
“At least Tom is here,” Callie said. “And me. But I ain’t helping with your roof.”
“Tom offered. He said he’d bring a half dozen friends when the season is over.”
Callie’s smile became wry. “Tom Hunter plus six college basketball players. On your roof. In the winter. You’re a foolish girl. If you’d wait till summer they’d work shirtless.”
“If I wait till summer, everything I own will be underwater and Myron Daulton will have won. I’ve got to go. I’ve got Abnormal in fifteen.” Eve reached to shut down her laptop, then stopped. Abruptly. “Oh my God,” she murmured staring at her email inbox.
“Eve, who is Martha Brisbane and why do you have her on Google Alert?”
Eve had put Martha on Google Alert a week ago, after she’d been missing from Shadowland for two days. Any mention of Martha on the Internet would be flagged.
And it had indeed. Her heart in her throat, Eve read the short article that had been published in today’s Mirror. Martha Brisbane, 42, was found dead in her apartment last night, the victim of an apparent suicide. She had hanged herself. The article went on, giving statistics of Twin Cities suicides, but Eve could only see one line.
Suicide. I should have seen this coming. I should have stopped it.
But Martha had spent eighteen hours a day in Shadowland for months before joining their study. Who knew what had driven her to do so? Still… Martha was dead.
And Eve wasn’t even supposed to know she’d existed.
“Eve?” Callie tapped her shoulder gently. “Who is she?”
“Just someone I know.” Someone I shouldn’t have known. But I did. Eve closed her laptop with a snap. “I have to get to class.”
Callie hung back, studying her. “Will you go to the funeral?”
She slid her laptop into her computer bag. “If I can figure out where it is, yes.”
“You want me to go with you?”
Eve drew a shaky breath. “Yes. Thanks.”
“You bet. Don’t go climbing on the roof by yourself.”
Eve made herself smile. Her roof was now the least of her concerns. “I won’t.”
Monday, February 22, 9:40 a.m.
“Thank you for seeing us.” Jack set his hat next to Noah’s on the coffee table.
Mrs. Altman’s hands were clutched tightly in her lap. “What is this about?”
“Your daughter, ma’am,” Noah said. He’d lost the toss again. “We know Samantha’s death was ruled a suicide, but you and your husband weren’t convinced.”
“It’s a mortal sin. Samantha was a good Catholic. She never missed Mass.”
“We believe your daughter didn’t commit suicide. She may have been murdered.”
Mrs. Altman closed her eyes. “Dear God.”
Jack gave her a moment. “Do you have the clothing your daughter was wearing?”
“We put everything in a box,” she murmured. “We haven’t been able to look at it.”
“What about the stool found in her bedroom?” Jack asked.
“I gave it to a thrift shop. I couldn’t look at it.”
Noah wanted to sigh. “Can you tell us which location you took it to?”
“Grand Avenue. Why?”
“It may be important,” Noah said, then damned the toss he’d lost. He suspected Jack kept a two-faced coin in his pocket, because Noah lost the toss most of the time. “To rule your daughter’s death a homicide, we need to examine your daughter’s body.”
Mrs. Altman’s eyes filled with tears. “No. I won’t allow it. It’s a desecration.”
“I won’t say I understand how you feel,” Noah said gently, “because there is no way that I can. But please know we’d never take this action if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. If someone killed your daughter, he needs to be caught. Stopped. Punished.”
She was rocking pitifully, tears streaming down her face. “You can’t do this to her.”
“Mrs. Altman,” Noah said, his voice still gentle, “there’s nothing stopping the person who killed your Samantha from killing someone else’s daughter. I know you don’t want that. You don’t want another family to go through the pain you’ve endured.”
“No,” she whispered. “We don’t.” She looked away, closed her eyes. “All right.”
“Thank you,” Noah said. “If you tell us where you put her things, we’ll be going.”
She stood up, still crying. “In the spare bedroom closet.”
“I’ll get it,” Jack said while Mrs. Altman covered her face with her hands and wept.
Exhumation was like waiting until a wound had almost healed, then ripping it open again in the vilest of ways. “Sit down, ma’am,” Noah said, patting her back as she cried.
Jack returned and Mrs. Altman stood uncertainly as Noah and Jack put on their hats.
“Detective Phelps and I will update you on the investigation ourselves. And don’t worry. We’ll make sure they put the ground back the way it was.”
Mrs. Altman shook her head. “She’s not in the ground yet.”
Noah’s brows lifted. “Excuse me?”
“Our family has been buried in the same cemetery for generations. They don’t have a backhoe so they can’t dig yet. The ground’s still frozen. We’d planned to bury her in the spring.” Her chin lifted, her eyes now sharp as they met Noah’s. “That will make it faster, won’t it, Detective? That way you can find the monster that did this to my child.”
“Yes, ma’am. This will speed things up considerably. Thank you.”
Neither Jack nor Noah spoke until they reached the car. Jack cleared his throat, no humor in his eyes. “I’m glad you lost the toss. I never know what to say.”
“She reminded me of my mom.” Who worried about him constantly. She was a cop’s widow. Noah supposed she was entitled to worry about her son.
“All the old ladies remind you of your mom.”
“I always hoped somebody would be kind to her if something happened to me first.”
Jack frowned. “Don’t talk like that.”
“We all gotta go sometime, Jack,” Noah said, as he always did.
“I’m not anxious to go today,” Jack replied, as he always did. “Let’s find that stool.”
“And then to Brisbane’s apartment, see if Mrs. Kobrecki has returned.”
“And with her, the panty fiend grandson, Taylor.”
Monday, February 22, 11:15 a.m.
Eve stood outside her advisor’s office, her heart beating way too fast. For an hour she’d sat through her Abnormal seminar, unable to concentrate. Martha’s dead.
You have to do something. But what? Martha’s suicide might not have been related to her participation in Eve’s study. But I don’t know that it wasn’t.
She had five more red-zones, whose game time had skyrocketed in recent weeks. None had been ultra-users before. They’d never played a role play game before. But when they’d been introduced to Shadow-land, they’d been sucked in, just the same.
Lightly she rapped her knuckles on her grad advisor’s office door. “Dr. Donner?”
Donner looked up. “Miss Wilson. I thought our meeting wasn’t until Thursday.”
“It’s not. But something has come up.”
“Then come in,” he said, looking back at the journal he had been reading.
Eve had never liked him, not in the two years she’d been a grad student at Marshall. He’d asked to be her advisor, citing interest in her thesis concept. He thought it was publishable, critical in the “publish or perish” academic world. Everyone said he was overdue. He wouldn’t be pleased with what she was about to say.
“Well.” He tossed the journal onto a tall stack. “What did you need, Miss Wilson?”
“I’m having some concerns about a few of the test subjects, Dr. Donner.” She opened her notebook where she’d written the subjects’ ID numbers, as if she didn’t know them by heart. None of whose real names she was supposed to know.
“Well?” he asked impatiently. “What about them?”
“They’ve posted increases in game time of more than three hundred percent. I’m concerned they’re endangering quality of life and in some cases, their livelihood.”
Donner fixed his gaze upon Eve’s face and part of her wanted to back away. But of course she did not. She’d faced monsters far scarier than Donald Donner in her lifetime.
“Miss Wilson, how do you know how much time they’ve spent in game play?”
She was prepared for the question. “I can run a search to find out who’s in Shadowland at any given time. I’ve programmed my computer to run these searches multiple times every day and these numbers represent an average.” Which was no lie.
“Clever,” he murmured. “But can you prove these subjects are engaged in active play versus, perhaps, just forgetting to log out?”
Yes. Because I’m in there, too. Talking, interacting with them. Watching them.
His eyes narrowed when she didn’t answer. “Miss Wilson? Does your search differentiate active play time versus just forgetting to log out?”
“No, it doesn’t,” she murmured.
“Are they doing their self-esteem charts?”
“Yes, and the data is promising. Twenty percent indicate they are more confident in the real world after self-actualization exercises in the virtual world. But I’m concerned that the line between reality and imagination is blurring for some.”
He frowned. “They’ve exhibited quantifiable depression or personality changes?”
“No. But they haven’t been required to test for depression or personality changes in the last month. Most of these subjects aren’t due for testing for another few weeks.”
He relaxed. “Then in another few weeks we’ll find out if they have a problem.”
Not soon enough for Martha Brisbane. She’s already dead. In a few weeks Christy Lewis might be unemployed. “We should be testing more frequently,” she said firmly.
“So you’ve noted many times,” he said, condescendingly. “And as I’ve attempted to explain to you each time, we need to use independent third-party testers to ensure our double-blind status. That costs money for the university and time for the subjects.”
“There is surplus in the test budget. I’ve kept careful track of spending.”
“You’d have subjects dropping like flies if they had to come in more frequently.”
“But sir,” she started and Donner lifted his hand.
“Miss Wilson,” he said sharply, then smiled, but somehow a smile never worked on his face. “Eve. Your graduate research could help a lot of people. Role play in the real world has long been used to help our patients improve self-esteem. It’s timely and relevant to explore using the virtual world of the Internet to do the same.”
Timely, relevant, and publishable. She lifted her chin. “I never intended our subjects to participate to the point of ignoring their real lives. We’re responsible for them.”
His smile vanished. “Your subjects signed a release indemnifying us from liability. We are not responsible. Don’t ever indicate that we are, spoken or written. I don’t have time for this. I have a class to teach at noon, so if you’ll excuse me.”
Eve didn’t move from her chair. “Dr. Donner, please. What if our subjects show evidence of depression, even… suicidal thoughts? What would we do then?”
“We’d ensure that subject was treated by an independent third-party therapist.”
Eve looked down at her hands, clenched in her lap. Too late for Martha. “What if, hypothetically speaking, I knew one of our subjects was suicidal?”
“It’s moot,” he said coldly, warningly even. “You do not have that information.”
She looked up. His eyes were narrowed, daring her to continue. “But if I did?”
“Then you’d be facing discipline from the committee. Perhaps worse.”
Eve wanted to close her eyes, wanted to retreat back into the dark. But this was real. Martha was really dead. They might have seen it had they tested more frequently. I should have insisted. A year ago she’d been happy to have her research approved and funded. Rocking the boat hadn’t seemed worthwhile. The situation had changed.
She took the copy she’d printed of Martha’s death article from her notebook. “This was subject 92.” Keeping her hand perfectly steady, she handed it to him over his desk.
He stared at the page, then grabbed it. His face darkened and Eve’s throat closed. This was it. He’d throw her out of the program. Cancel her research.
“I think that if we’d tested her more often, we might have been able to get her help,” she said. “Her death is on my head, Dr. Donner. I don’t want any more suicides.”
Deliberately he dropped the sheet onto his shredder and hit the switch. Instantly the page was gone and with it any minute respect she’d held for Donald Donner.
“I never saw that,” he said. “You never saw it. Are we clear, Miss Wilson?”
Eve’s knees were shaking, but she’d be damned before she’d let him see it. “Crystal.”
For a long time she sat at her desk, staring at nothing, trying to figure out what to do.
What would Dana do? Dana Dupinsky Buchanan, one of the women who’d all but raised her in Hanover House, a Chicago shelter. Dana, who’d risked her freedom and her life helping battered women find hope and safety. Helping runaways like me.
Dana would do whatever was necessary to keep those people safe. So should I.
Maybe no more bad things would happen. But if they did… I’ll do what I need to do. She knew where every one of her subjects resided in Shadowland. Now she’d seek them out in the real world, right here in Minneapolis. Starting with Christy Lewis.
If Donner found out, she’d be finished. But I’d rather forfeit it all and be able to look in the mirror. She’d do what she needed to do, but smartly. If I’m lucky, nobody will ever know. Her subjects would be safe and Donner would get his precious published study.
Then she’d get a new advisor. But first, Christy. She’d watched Christy’s Gwenivere for weeks in the virtual world. It was time to set Christy straight in the real one.
Monday, February 22, 2:10 p.m.
Noah had expected Mrs. Kobrecki to look meaner. So when a sweet little old lady answered his knock, he had to swiftly control his surprise. “Mrs. Kobrecki?”
“You must be the detectives.” She opened the door wide. “Please, sit down.”
“Thank you,” Jack said with an engaging smile. “You’re a hard woman to reach.”
“My cellular phone battery was dead. I was away for the weekend and returned just this morning. I called you all as soon as I saw the crime scene tape. Poor Martha.”
“How long had you known Ms. Brisbane, ma’am?” Noah asked.
“Eight years. We had our differences, but I never dreamed she’d do this.”
“What kind of differences?” Noah probed with a sympathetic smile.
“Her apartment,” Mrs. Kobrecki said archly, as if it were obvious. “Not to speak ill of the dead, but that woman lived in total filth.”
Noah thought of Martha’s spotless apartment. “When did you last see her?”
“Week ago, Saturday. She was going out, which was odd. She didn’t go out often.”
“Did she say where she was going?” Jack asked.
“No.” Mrs. Kobrecki’s lips thinned.
“Did you have an argument, Mrs. Kobrecki?” Noah asked.
“Yes. I told her that if she didn’t clean her place, I’d evict her. She just ignored me. That woman made me so mad.” Then she sighed. “But I never would have wanted this.”
“Of course not,” Noah said soothingly. “Did you see when Martha returned home?”
“No. I would have been too angry to talk to her anyway.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“It’s routine, ma’am. We’re trying to establish a time of death. For her family.”
“Her mother probably won’t care what time Martha died.”
Noah feigned surprised concern. “Martha didn’t get along with her mother?”
“No, and I don’t know why. I once went up to yell at Martha about the mess. I heard her through the door, on the phone, yelling at her mother. She came to the door crying.”
“Did you hear what they were saying to each other?” Jack asked.
“Not really. I did hear Martha tell her mother she was doing it for her. I assumed she meant that was why she worked all the time and never visited her.”
“Was it normal for a week to pass without seeing her?” Noah asked.
“Sometimes I’d go a month without seeing her. I hadn’t planned to see her that night. I just ran into her at the door. I’d already decided to evict her before that last argument but my lawyer had told me to give her one more warning, and if she didn’t listen, then get photos of the mess. Her going out gave me the opportunity to do that.”
“Did you get the pictures?” Jack asked.
“Yes, after Martha left that evening. I don’t normally intrude on my tenants’ privacy, but I knew I needed to get her out or my whole place would be infested with roaches.”
Noah felt a spurt of triumph. “Can we get a copy of those pictures? For our files.”
Mrs. Kobrecki got them from her desk. “Oh, and I suppose you should take her mail, too. The postman gave me that on Friday as I was leaving for my weekend trip. Martha’s mailbox was full. He couldn’t stuff any more in there, so I cleaned it out.”
“You didn’t think it unusual that she didn’t go to her mailbox?” Noah asked.
“She’d go weeks without checking her mail, like she was in her own little world.”
“Did she pay her rent on time?” Noah asked.
“She’d never missed a payment until a year ago. She said she’d gotten wrapped up in a project and lost track of time. After that she did automatic payment from the bank.”
Jack began sorting the mail, Noah the pictures. Wow. The kitchen sink was filled with dishes, the garbage can overflowing with paper plates. Her desk was covered with trash, coffee cups, and stacks of paper. In the living room were stacks of newspapers, so many the wall was totally obscured. Someone had done a very thorough cleanup.
Jack cleared his throat. “Mrs. Kobrecki, we’d like to have a last look around the apartment before we close this case. Can you unlock it for us?”
“Of course. I’ll get my keys. They’re in the back.”
CSU had sealed the scene. Jack didn’t need Kobrecki’s keys. “What did you find?”
“Something that looks like a paycheck,” Jack murmured, “plus a bank statement. Why don’t you chat with Mrs. Kobrecki and I’ll go to the car and check this out.”
The two stood when Mrs. Kobrecki came back into the room. “Let’s go,” she said.
“I have to start wrapping up,” Jack said. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Kobrecki.”
Noah followed Mrs. Kobrecki upstairs. “I apologize. My partner and I forgot that CSU sealed the scene with our lock. We’ll put your lock back when the case is closed.”
“I didn’t realize a suicide was a case,” Mrs. Kobrecki said, suddenly suspicious.
“It’s procedure, ma’am. Who lives in the apartment next to Miss Brisbane?”
“Nobody. The Smiths lived there, but they got transferred about three months ago.”
The hair rose on the back of Noah’s neck. “You mean this apartment was empty?”
“Yes. I won’t rent either of them for months after this.”
“Could you open it for me? The empty unit?”
Mrs. Kobrecki stiffened. “I don’t have the key to that unit on this key ring.”
Oh, really. “I thought you had a master.”
“I do, but it only works on the doorknob and the last tenants installed a deadbolt. Could you hurry, please? I’d like to get this over with.”
“Of course.” Noah opened the door, waited for her reaction. She didn’t disappoint.
Her gasp echoed off the walls. “Oh my God. Was she robbed?”
“We took her computer into our lab. But the rest of the place looks different?”
“Like day and night. I heard that people will call family and friends and give things away before they kill themselves. Do they clean, too?”
“Apparently Miss Brisbane did. Was her apartment always messy?”
“Not like at the end. She was always a little cluttered and always had dishes in the sink but the disgusting messes started… about a year ago.”
Noah wondered what had happened a year ago that had so changed her life. “Ma’am, who does maintenance and repair for you?”
“My grandson,” she said, still stunned and off-guard, as he had hoped she would be.
“I’d like to have his statement for the report, if that’s all right.”
Her eyes grew sharply suspicious once again. “Why? You have the pictures, why do you need to talk to Taylor?”
Smart old bird. “Just following procedure.” Her defenses were up. That was telling.
“Taylor is out of town. He won’t be home for weeks.”
“Can I get a phone number?”
Her lips pursed. “It’s stored in my cell phone, which as I mentioned, is dead. I don’t remember it by heart. I’ll have to call you with it.”
Ooh, very smart old bird. “Please do that, Mrs. Kobrecki. Thank you for your time.”
“Can I have my pictures back?”
“I’ll need them for my report. I’ll make copies and ensure you get these back.”
Her cheeks darkened. “Thank you. If there’s nothing else?”
“No ma’am. You’ve been very helpful.”
She looked as if she wanted to curse. Instead she left silently fuming. Noah locked the door and attached the crime scene tape. They needed to find Taylor Kobrecki.
Monday, February 22, 2:45 p.m.
Eve stood on Martha Brisbane’s apartment building manager’s welcome mat, her fist an inch from the woman’s door. She’d stopped herself from knocking twice already.
Eve’s attempt to talk with Christy Lewis had fallen flat. Christy hadn’t come into the office and hadn’t called in sick. That meant Christy had either overslept after spending all night online, or was still online. Frustrated and needing to do something, Eve had driven to Martha’s, hoping to learn where the woman’s funeral would be held.
But what if the building manager asks how I know Martha? You’ll say you know her from work. That’s not a lie. Drawing a breath, Eve lifted her hand to knock just as a little old lady came stomping down the stairs to the manager’s basement apartment.
“I don’t want any,” she said. She slammed the door so hard the walls shook.
“I think I’ll wait for the obituary,” Eve murmured. She started up the stairs, then heard footsteps coming down. The hairs on the back of her neck lifted, and she’d learned long ago to trust her senses. Slowing, she waited until whoever was coming was gone.
It was a man, all in black. All the way up to the fedora on his head.
Oh. It was more quiet exhalation than a word, but he’d heard. He paused at the door, then turned, and her stomach rolled, just as it did every time she saw him.
Mr. Tonic Water himself. He came to the head of the stairs, eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat. “Eve?” He sounded as surprised as she was.
“Detective.” It was the only word that would move from her brain to her lips. Why was he here? Why did her heart have to hammer like a piston every time she saw him?
“Why are you here?” he asked, which was a damn good question.
She walked past him to the door. “I was wondering when Martha’s funeral would be.”
“That I don’t know,” he said. “How did you know Miss Brisbane?”
She stared up at him unflinchingly, her mouth dry as dust. “From work.”
His dark brows lifted slightly. “From Sal’s? I never saw her there.”
You only come in once a week. “Not from Sal’s. I’ll check the paper for her obituary.”
“Eve, wait. I need to know more. You knew her from work, but not from Sal’s?”
“I just wanted to pay my respects. Excuse me.” She could feel his eyes on her as she escaped, staring from beneath the brim of his fedora.
Fedora. Why was the Hat Squad here? Abruptly she turned. “I read Martha committed suicide.”
“That’s what the paper said, yes,” he said, his stare too penetrating for her comfort.
“But you’re homicide.”
“We investigate suicides.”
“But that’s not why you’re here. If Martha killed herself you would have closed it last night.” When he’d come by to fetch Jack, he was so angry she’d felt it across the bar. She came closer, until she could see under the brim of his hat. “Did Martha kill herself?”
His jaw tightened, almost imperceptibly. “Why?”
Because if she didn’t, I’m not guilty or responsible. Someone else was. Oh my God. Martha was murdered. By whom? And why? She was in Shadowland eighteen fucking hours a day. How could any real person have known her to murder her?
She drew a breath of frigid air. “It matters to me, okay? Martha mattered.”
His eyes shifted and suddenly they were no longer unreadable. She saw a flash of pain, of grief, of anger. And suddenly she knew Martha mattered to him as well.
In that moment Eve wanted, needed to tell him everything. Which terrified her.
“She didn’t kill herself,” he said. “Where did you know her from? I need to know. Please.”
I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill her. Relief sent a shudder down her spine. “Work. I knew her from work. I have to go.” And when she turned, he didn’t try to stop her.
“Was that Eve from Sal’s?” Jack asked when Noah got back to the car.
“Yeah. She said she knew Martha ‘from work.’ ”
“Really? I never saw Martha at Sal’s.”
“No, Eve said it was from Martha’s work.”
Jack blinked, clearly taken aback. “Really? Well, well, well. Still waters, they say.”
“What the hell are you babbling about?” Noah asked irritably.
Jack held out a paycheck. “Payable to Martha Brisbane from Siren Song, Inc.”
“Siren Song. Never heard of them,” Noah muttered.
“Me either, so I had Faye run them through the system.”
“And?” Faye was their office administrator. “What did she say?”
“Siren Song is a phone sex business.”
Noah’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Yep. I called the number on their business registration, but only got a voicemail. Here’s the address. Let’s go pay them a visit.”
“Wait.” Noah’s mind was still spinning. “Eve is a phone sex provider?”
Jack looked amused. “Um, so was Martha. Our victim? Remember her?”
Noah opened his mouth. Closed it again. “Goddammit,” he said.
He started the car and Jack shrugged. “I checked Martha’s bank statement while you were in there. She spent almost every penny on that nursing home for her mother, which is expensive. She needed the money, Web. Maybe Eve does, too. It’s not illegal.”
I’m just disappointed. He’d thought more of Eve. For a moment, seeing her there, outside of a bar… For a moment he’d thought it was fate kicking him in the ass, like Trina said. But now… A phone sex provider? “Bartenders make good money.”
“She’s a grad student,” Jack said. “College is expensive.”
Noah’s scowl deepened. “How did you know she’s a grad student?”
“You think I’ve been going up to the bar to get your water because I’m nice? I’ve been trying to get Eve to go out with me for six months, ever since… Well, you know.”
Yeah, Noah thought bitterly. He knew. Before six months ago Jack wouldn’t have given Eve the time of day. Her scar had put him off. The man was a prince.
Jack made a rude noise. “Don’t you look at me like that, Web. You sure weren’t making a move, before or after she got her face fixed.”
Sometimes, I swear to God… Noah gripped the wheel to keep his hand from balling into an annoyed fist, but couldn’t stop himself from asking, “What did she say?”
“She evades me every single time. She’s a smooth one.”
Noah thought about the way she’d bolted away minutes ago. Not so smooth. He’d known she was hiding something. A damn big something. His mind was still reeling.
“But I bet she’s good at it,” Jack added as Noah pulled out of the parking lot.
“Eve. Phone sex. She’s got that smoky voice. I bet she makes good money.”
Noah knew Jack was riding him, but still the anger rose higher. “Shut. Up. Jack.”
Jack chuckled. “God, you’re easy. Ask her out. She’ll say no and you can move on.”
“No.” Noah bit the word off, then regretted it. He was letting Jack bait him. Again.
“Whatever.” Jack was quiet a moment. “One of Martha’s clients may have killed her.”
Noah made himself concentrate. “Possibly. Did Faye have Martha’s LUDs yet?”
“Yeah, and there was a toll-free number she called at least ten times a day.”
“Her connection into Siren Song’s switchboard.”
“I’m thinking that,” Jack said. “When we get Samantha’s LUDs, we’ll see if Sammy called the same number. Maybe Siren’s the connection between the two.”
“Hell. If this perv is hitting on phone sex operators, and Eve is working for them…”
“Let’s make sure all the other Sirens are still alive and heavy breathing.”
“Not funny, Jack.”
Jack’s sigh was almost sincere. “Wasn’t really meant to be. Sometimes they just come out on their own. Hey, my dad’s a stand-up comic. It’s genetic.”
“Your dad’s a retired podiatrist.”
“He does stand-up part time at the comedy club. Said after looking at feet for forty years, it only seemed right. He’s pretty good. Henny Youngman, watch out.”
Noah laughed wearily. Just when he was ready to strangle Jack, his partner acted human and… almost likable. “Jack.”
Jack’s lips curved. “But you laughed. Look at the bright side. Maybe one of us can convince Eve to leave Siren and go into private practice. If you know what I mean.”
Unbelievably, Noah felt his cheeks heat. “Are you a perpetual teenager?”
Jack considered it without rancor. “Yep. You wanna grab lunch, hit Siren Song, then head back to the nursing home to chat with Martha’s Mommy Dearest?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Monday, February 22, 3:02 p.m
Liza Barkley flipped open her phone the moment she walked out of the school. She’d been checking surreptitiously all day, but Lindsay hadn’t called back.
Worried sick, she called Information and was connected to Shotz Cleaning Service.
“Hi, my name is Liza Barkley and I’m trying to reach my sister Lindsay. She didn’t come home last night, after working the night shift. Have you heard from her?”
There was a long silence on the other end and Liza’s stomach turned inside out. Poised in front of her school bus, she froze. “Is my sister all right?”
“Um… we had to let Lindsay go last June. Business was bad.”
Stunned, Lindsay stared at the ground. June? “She goes to work every night. She told me that business was bad, that she had to take the night shift to keep her job.”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have a night shift. Good luck.”
For a moment Liza stood, too numb to move. Lindsay lied. What had she been doing all these months? It didn’t matter now. Lindsay was missing.
“Liza?” The bus driver leaned forward. “You need to get on. It’s time to leave.”
Do something. “I’m not going home. Which city bus goes to the police station?”
Monday, February 22, 3:35 p.m.
Eve sank into the stuffed chair in her living room. Someone had murdered Martha, who’d spent eighteen hours a day online. Was it random or connected to Shadowland?
“That’s crazy,” she said out loud. “Nobody knew who Desiree was in the real world.”
You did. That stopped her cold. And Christy Lewis didn’t show up for work today.
Oh my God. What if something had happened to Christy, too?
Eve logged in to Shadowland, chose her Greer avatar and went to Ninth Circle. But Greer searched, finding no Gwenivere. Eve navigated Gwenivere’s virtual house, and… the breath rushed out of her lungs. A black wreath hung on the door. The death of an avatar. Heart pounding, Eve had Greer open the door.
And everything real around her faded away. Eve stared at the screen until she heard a whimper and realized it had come from her own throat.
Gwenivere was hanging, a noose around her neck, her face made up like a garish clown. Her red shoes had fallen off. One lay on its side and the other sat straight up.
“Oh my God,” Eve whispered. Her pulse now pounding out of control, she set the laptop aside and paced. Martha was found hanging. Now Christy’s Gwenivere was hanging. It could be a coincidence. But you know damn well it’s not. Call 911.
And tell them what? That a virtual-world character got whacked? They’ll laugh at me.
So don’t tell them about Shadowland. Just tell them to check on her.
And they’ll ask why. So I’ll say, she missed work today. They’ll still laugh at me.
“I can’t call 911,” she said. “But I have to tell somebody.” Somebody she could trust.
If this were Chicago, she’d call Detective Mia Mitchell who, along with Dana and Caroline, had raised her. But this wasn’t Chicago and Mia wasn’t here.
She calmed until all she could hear was the dripping of the water into the pots in her living room and then she knew what to do. Olivia Sutherland. Olivia was Mia’s sister and Hat Squad, too. Olivia was a kind person-she’d helped Eve get the job at Sal’s. If Christy was in trouble, Olivia could tell Noah Webster and keep Eve out of the whole loop. If Christy was fine, Olivia would keep it to herself.
“Now you’re finally thinking,” Eve muttered. She dialed the precinct, asked for Olivia. And got voicemail. “Olivia, it’s Eve Wilson. Could you call me please? It’s urgent.”
She hung up and stared at the hanging avatar on her laptop screen. “Now what?”
You have to check on Christy. Hands shaking, Eve searched the online phonebook. Martha had been listed, but there were twelve Christine Lewises in the Twin Cities.
The addresses of all the study subjects were in a file on the university’s server under Dr. Donner’s account. The one time she’d broken in, she’d done so from Donner’s admin assistant’s PC. Jeremy Lyons had typed the names in when the study began.
Jeremy Lyons was also careless and left his workstation unprotected when he took one of his many bathroom breaks during the day. It had taken Eve only minutes to find the file and write down the names of the subjects she’d thought at risk. There hadn’t been time to write home addresses and she hadn’t wanted to know them anyway.
That had been too close to real-world stalking. Now she wished she’d copied them.
“You could just call Noah Webster,” she said aloud. And tell him what? How about the truth? She’d wanted to tell him when she stood in front of Martha’s apartment. There was something in his eyes that she… trusted. Trust was a precious commodity.
So’s my place in grad school. Eve needed access to the server in a way that couldn’t be traced back to her. She knew someone who could do it. Dana’s husband, Ethan, was a network security expert. When she lived in Chicago, Eve had worked for Ethan part-time and had learned a hell of a lot about networks. She needed to phone home.
If this doesn’t work, I’ll call Webster and come clean. Fingers crossed, Eve dialed and nearly cried when Dana’s familiar voice answered. “Evie, how are you?”
“I’m fine.” Dana was pregnant again, due in a month. There was no way Eve would tell her anything was wrong. “Can I talk to Ethan? My hard drive froze again.”
“You will tell me what’s wrong, sooner or later,” Dana said. “Hold on, I’ll get Ethan.”
A minute later he picked up. “Eve. How the hell are you, kid?”
“I’ve had better days. Ethan, I need access to my university’s server, but don’t want anyone to know I’ve been there.”
“Why?” The single word carried all of Ethan’s unvoiced concerns.
That was a damn good question. “I told you about my thesis study.”
“Building self-esteem in the virtual world. Your subjects get to play all day in Shadowland. I wish I were on your study.”
“No, you really don’t. I’m concerned about one of the subjects. I need to get her home address. Can you trust me and not ask me any more?”
“I can do that. You’ll tell me if you get into trouble? I can be there in a few hours.”
Eve’s heart squeezed. “Thank you.” She gave him Jeremy Lyons’s logon and password. “He wrote it on a sticky hidden under his blotter.”
“He’s an idiot,” Ethan muttered. “Writing his password down like that.”
“But so many do.” One of her jobs for Ethan had been to hack into his clients’ networks, to show them their vulnerabilities. It had been all too easy.
“Keeps me employed,” he said. A minute passed, then two more while Eve watched Christy’s avatar swing from a virtual noose. “I’m in. What do you want to know?”
“Home address for Lewis, Christy L., for now. Can you email me a copy of the file?”
“Done and done. Christy Lewis lives at 5492 Red Barn Lane in Woodfield.”
It would take a little while to get there. “Thanks.”
“Eve, wait. How much trouble are you in?”
“I broke the double-blind code on this test. If anyone finds out, I’ll get expelled.”
“Ooh.” In her mind’s eye she could see him wince. “That’s bad, kid.”
“I know, but it was the right thing to do.”
“You’re Dana’s,” he said quietly. “I’d expect no less. Call me if you need me. I can keep it from her for a little while. She and the baby are strong, so don’t worry.”
Eve hung up, staring at the hanging Gwenivere. “Easy for you to say.”
Monday, February 22, 4:05 p.m.
“It’s officially a homicide,” Ian Gilles said when he joined the team that had gathered in Abbott’s small office. “Martha was strangled. Among other things.”
“What other things?” Noah asked, then put up his hand. “Wait, before you tell us, you know everybody, right? Micki Ridgewell and Carleton Pierce?”
“Of course I know Micki.” Ian smiled at her, a rare look for his face. “And Dr. Pierce and I worked on a homicide last year. Good to see you.”
“And you.” Carleton had photographs of the two victims in front of him and he pointed to Samantha. “Have you re-examined her yet?”
“Not yet,” Ian said. “I’ll have her body tomorrow. For now, I can only tell you about Martha Brisbane. Her bloodwork was positive for ketamine.”
“The puncture wound on her neck,” Jack said. “Ket’s a sedative.”
“Exactly. It’s sometimes used in field surgery because it sedates and immobilizes. This is interesting.” Ian pulled a photo from the stack. “These are her lungs.”
Micki frowned at the photo. “They’re blue. Why did you stain them?”
“I didn’t. She came that way.”
“I’ve heard of holding your breath till you turn blue,” Jack said, “but I never actually thought it worked. What is it?”
“Copper sulfate. I found traces in her tracheal wall and stomach. Copper sulfate is found in drain cleaners that clear tree roots. You flush it down your toilet.”
Micki winced. “It eats through tree roots?”
“And skin. I found traces on her face, under the makeup.”
“He held her face in the toilet?” Noah asked and Ian nodded.
“She was held under long and frequently enough that she’d inhaled and swallowed the liquid. If he hadn’t strangled her, the copper sulfate might have eventually killed her. Also, she’d been cleaning right before her death. I found pieces of sponge beneath her nails. Her hands had also been in contact with some very strong bleach.”
“Her landlady said the apartment was filthy,” Noah said, “but it had been cleaned. The sonofabitch made Martha clean before he killed her?”
“Now, that’s a new one.” Jack looked at Ian. “No signs of sexual assault?”
Ian shook his head. “This woman had not been sexually active in some time.”
“Well, not in the conventional way,” Noah muttered. “You done, Ian?”
“Almost. I found a callus above her left ear. I’ve seen it before in victims who worked in phone sales. It was where the headset rested on their skin.”
“Martha spent quite a lot of time on the phone,” Jack said deliberately. “That we can’t find her headset means he took the tool of her trade, painted her face up, made her clean up her apartment… It does all fit.”
“Martha worked for Siren Song,” Noah said. “It’s a phone sex company.”
Micki blinked. “She was a phone sex operator?”
“No wonder her mother was mad at her,” Abbott said.
Noah sighed. “Perhaps Martha didn’t consider it prostitution, but her mother did. We’re thinking Martha may have been killed because of Siren.”
“By a client or somebody who didn’t approve,” Jack added. “We don’t know how Samantha Altman factors in, yet, although she had been laid off recently. Maybe she was working for Siren until she got something better.”
“We want Siren Song’s employee list. It could connect Samantha and tell us who’s at risk for the next attack.” Like Eve, Noah thought.
“I’ll call the DA,” Abbott said. “Get the subpoenas started. Mick, what do you have?”
“All the prints matched the victim except for one set we found on pipes, light fixtures, etc. I’m betting they belong to the maintenance man.”
“Taylor Kobrecki,” Noah said. “He does all her maintenance. He’s still AWOL.”
“Also, we’ve searched her computer,” Micki said. “Looks like the drive was wiped.”
“Can you work your magic and save the day?” Jack asked.
“Sugar’s working on it,” she said. “If anything’s there, he’ll find it. That stool that you two recovered from the thrift store this morning is a match to Martha’s. I haven’t traced the origin yet, and there are no usable prints. On the other hand, both victims’ dresses and shoes came from The Fashion Club, an online shopping network. Unfortunately they sold hundreds of each this year, none to Martha or Samantha. If we get a suspect we may be able to use the list to confirm, but I don’t see it being a beacon.”
“If this killer bought those dresses, he had to have known his victims’ sizes,” Carleton said thoughtfully. “That’s quite a bit of planning.”
“I agree,” Micki said. “Lots of planning and no mistakes. No fibers or hair, except the cat hair in Martha’s carpet. She had food and a box of litter, but no litterbox.”
“And nobody’s seen the cat,” Jack said.
“That’s not good,” Carleton said quietly. “Serial killers often begin by killing animals.”
“Wonderful.” Abbott shook his head. “What about the noose?”
“Ordinary rope,” Micki said. “Could have been purchased at any hardware store. Same with the hook in the ceiling. Martha had really high ceilings in that apartment. I don’t think she could have put the hook in herself. She would have needed a ladder.”
“Or a handyman,” Noah said. “Taylor Kobrecki, again.”
“So the panty perv moves to the top of our list of suspects,” Abbott said.
“Mrs. Kobrecki says Taylor’s out of town,” Noah said. “I’m thinking that as soon as I left, she called him, so we put in for her LUDs, cell and home phones.”
“He could be hiding in an empty apartment unit next to Martha’s place,” Jack said.
“We called for a warrant,” Noah said. “We didn’t have cause. Now we might.”
“I’ll push it with the DA,” Abbott said. “Carleton, any thoughts on profile?”
“White male, twenties or thirties. High IQ. He plans and he’s dramatic. He’s obsessive about detail.” He sorted through all the photos until he found the ones of Samantha and Martha hanging in their identical poses. “There is something about the eyes that’s important to him. He made sure they’d stay open.”
“Which was very creepy,” Micki said under her breath.
“Agreed,” Carleton said. “Whoever did this thinks he got away with it with Samantha. So he did it again with Martha. It’s interesting that he used ketamine, and that he injected it in the neck. That indicates a level of… confidence. Except for Ian, how many of you would be comfortable shoving a syringe in a woman’s neck?”
“You think he’s had medical training?” Noah asked and Carleton shrugged.
Abbott nodded. “Let’s find out if the panty pervert ever played doctor. Ian, go through the hanging cases over the year. See if any others have puncture wounds.”
“We’ll track down Siren Song and get an employee and client list,” Jack said. “I can’t imagine they’ll fork over their clients without a subpoena, so we’ll get that started, too.”
“And we’ll talk to tenants, including the three women who filed a complaint. Somebody knows where Taylor hangs.” Noah winced. “No pun intended.”
Faye stuck her head in the door. “Noah, call on one. The woman said it was urgent.”
Noah pulled Abbott’s phone to the edge of the desk. “Webster.”
“This is Eve Wilson. You need to come to 5492 Red Barn Lane. It’s in Woodfield.”
Eve? Her voice didn’t falter, but he heard the underlying fear. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a woman here. She’s dead. She’s hanging from her bedroom ceiling.”
His heart sank, both for the newest victim and for Eve’s now undeniable connection. “Are you in the house?”
“No. I’m looking through the back window. Her name is Christy Lewis.”
“Did you know her from work, too?”
“Yes,” she said, resigned. “Just hurry. Please.” And she hung up.
Noah stood. “Victim number three.”
“I’ll get my team out there,” Micki said.
“I’ll meet you there,” Ian said. “I want to see this scene myself.”
Carleton already stood, buttoning his coat. “So do I. I’ll follow you up, Ian.”
Jack put on his hat. “Then let’s go.”
Abbott waved them out, then pointed at Noah. “You stay. Close the door.”
Noah obeyed, knowing what was coming and dreading it.
“Who, how, and why?” Abbott asked.
“Eve Wilson,” Noah said dully.
Abbott did a double take. “From Sal’s?”
“Yeah. She was at Martha’s today. Said she knew Martha from work. She just said the same thing about this victim.”
Abbott still looked stunned. “I never would have picked her for a phone sex jockey. So she knows something. Find out what it is. I’ll send a squad car to the address, just in case this guy is still around. And to make sure Miss Wilson doesn’t leave.”
Monday, February 22, 4:55 p.m.
Eve sat in the back of a police cruiser, staring at the handcuffs on her wrists, trying to stay calm and not think about the woman hanging from a rope inside the house.
She hoped somebody’s wires got crossed, because she’d been cuffed and pushed into her current seating assignment. It had taken a lot of years, but she’d finally grown accustomed to a casual touch from a friend, or a stranger in passing. But this… the cops had put their hands on her. Pushed me. For a moment she’d been eighteen again and terrified, without enough air to breathe.
Luckily she’d breathed her way through enough panic attacks to know how to control the fear. She was still rattled, but she no longer needed a paper bag to breathe into.
She’d gotten a text off to Callie before the cops had arrived so somebody knew where she was. Then she’d been surrounded by cruisers, ambulances, flashing lights. For Christy, Eve thought, the memory of her empty eyes still fresh. And terrifying.
“Oh for God’s sake. You cuffed her? You weren’t supposed to arrest her.”
Noah Webster. She looked up through the window and met his eyes beneath the brim of his hat. She said nothing as he opened the rear door and unlocked her cuffs.
“I’m sorry, Eve. A little miscommunication there.”
Eve rubbed her wrists gingerly. “Have you seen her?”
“Your friend? Not yet. Come.” He took her arm and urged her to her feet.
Eve yanked away, panic still bubbling too close to the surface. “Where?”
“To my car. It has dark windows. I don’t want the press taking pictures of you.”
She followed, but when he opened the passenger door the panic boiled up and over, closing her throat. Didn’t your parents teach you not to get into cars with strange men?
It was his voice. Winters, the man who’d left her for dead, five years, eleven months, and eight days ago. His voice taunted when she was panicked. Or stood next to a man’s car. Even a man she trusted.
“Are you all right?” Webster asked.
“I’m fine. Fine,” she repeated focusing on Noah’s voice. He was real, in the here and now. She forced herself to get into his car, flinching when he slammed her door.
“I need you to listen,” he said when he’d slid behind the wheel. He stared straight ahead, his jaw hard. “We know about your work.”
She forced her face to remain composed. How did he know? “Really,” she said.
“Really,” he repeated tautly. “You might be in danger. Stay here while I check.”
The word “danger” gave her pause. “Don’t cuff me again. Please.”
“I don’t plan to.”
“How did you find out about my work?”
He looked at her then. “I’ll ask the questions for now. When did you arrive?”
There was disapproval in his eyes. Were it Donner, she’d understand. But Webster had no cause to disapprove of anything she’d done. She’d broken the rules, not the law. “About three minutes before I called you,” she said stiffly.
“How did you know to come here?”
“Christy didn’t show up to work today. I was worried.”
“So you knew her well?”
“Well enough.” Which was true. Martha had been all about the merchandise when she came into Eve’s Pandora store in Shadowland. She came to buy face upgrades for her Desiree avatar, while Christy’s Gwenivere had come to chat. Martha had been all business. Christy had just seemed lonely. Within a few visits, Christy, through her avatar, had blurted her whole real-world life story, including where she’d worked.
And now she’s dead. “Her eyes.” Eve swallowed hard. “They looked unnatural.”
“I know. Do you know if Martha or Christy had problems with anyone from work?”
“Besides the one who killed them?” she asked sharply, then looked down at her hands. “No, I don’t know of anyone who would have done this. I wish I could help you.”
“So do I. So far you’re our only connection between three dead women.”
Eve’s chin jerked up. “Three?”
“Yes. The other was Samantha Altman.”
Eve tried to see the participant list in her mind. They had over five hundred test subjects. Samantha Altman was not a name she remembered. “I don’t know her.”
“She didn’t work with you?” he asked, still disapproving. Disappointed.
“I don’t think so. If I knew, I’d tell you.” She met his angry eyes. “I swear.”
That seemed to satisfy him, temporarily at least. “Stay here. I’ll tell the officers to keep any press away. You’re our one link right now. I don’t want any of this leaking.”
“Don’t worry,” she said grimly. “I’m in no hurry to tell.”
He nodded and touched the brim of his hat. “I’ll be back.”
Frowning, she watched him go. What did he know? How had he known? And who was Samantha Altman? Quickly she pulled her cell from her pocket and dialed Ethan.
“I can’t talk long. I don’t want them to see me calling you.”
“Who is ‘them,’ Eve?”
“The police. It’s bad. Christy Lewis is dead. And she’s not the first.”
There was shocked silence on the other end. “Oh my God. Are you all right?”
“Yeah, if you don’t count the fact that I’ve been cuffed and questioned.”
“They cuffed you?” he whispered fiercely, as if he didn’t want Dana to overhear him.
“Detective Webster took off the cuffs. It was a mistake. The cops that first got here weren’t supposed to do that. Did you keep a copy of that file you sent me?”
“Eve,” Ethan warned. “What the hell is this all about?”
“I really don’t know. If anybody catches me talking to you, I’m asking you to get me an attorney. I probably won’t need one, but it’s a believable story. Do you have the file?”
“See if there is a Samantha Altman on the participant list.”
There was a short silence as he searched. “No Altman on the list.”
“I didn’t think so. Three women are dead. Two were in my study, Altman wasn’t. They think I’m their only link, but I can’t be.”
“Don’t say anything else until we get you an attorney,” Ethan said firmly.
“I’m not a suspect, Ethan. They’re worried I’ll be a victim.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” he gritted.
Two CSU vans had just pulled up, along with an SUV from the ME’s office, followed by a sleek Mercedes. “Not really. If I get arrested, you’ll be my one phone call, okay?”
“And until then?” Ethan demanded.
“Until then, I guess we wait. I gotta go. Don’t worry. I’m perfectly safe here.”
Monday, February 22, 5:10 p.m.
Noah stared. It was déjà vu all over again. Again. Christy Lewis hung from a rope on a hook in her bedroom. Her dress was the same style as Martha’s and Samantha’s, as were her shoes. One shoe lay on its side while the other stood straight up. The makeup, the upholstered stool, the open window… Everything was the same.
“My God,” Ian murmured. He walked around the victim. “This is… unreal.”
Carleton had followed him in. “It certainly is… except it’s very real.”
“Can you get a time of death, Ian?” Noah asked wearily.
“Not right now. She’s got the same petachiae in her eyes, the rope’s in the same position. He’s got this down to a science.” Shaking his head, Ian went to work.
“Did you find her?” Jack asked, and Noah knew he meant Eve.
“Yeah. Damn locals had her cuffed in the back of their cruiser.”
Micki looked up from taking pictures, her brow creased in an angry frown. “You unlocked her, didn’t you?” she demanded. She’d been floored when Noah had told her the caller was Eve Wilson. She’d been outraged when Noah had told her Eve worked with Martha Brisbane for Siren Song. You must have made a mistake, she’d said, so adamantly Noah had wondered all the way up here what Micki Ridgewell knew.
“Of course I unlocked the cuffs.” Noah studied Micki’s face. “Why?”
Micki shook her head. “She’s just been through a lot, that’s all.”
Noah knew Micki well enough to know that’s all she’d say. He’d look it up later.
“This feels like Groundhog Day,” Jack said quietly.
Noah looked up into Christy Lewis’s “unnatural” eyes. They were glued open, just as the others had been. “I know.”
“Oh God.” Ian straightened abruptly and looked around the room, alarm on his face.
“What?” Noah looked around as well, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing he hadn’t seen twice before anyway.
“Look,” Ian said, then lifted the skirt away from Christy Lewis’s legs.
Rope burns around her ankles. “He tied her,” Noah said, then saw what Ian was pointing to. He cringed, horrified. Twin pricks on the side of her foot. “Oh my God.”
Jack bolted back a step, going pale. “Fuck. A goddamn snake. I hate snakes.”
“They’re more afraid of us,” Micki said, then her lips twitched. “Maybe not of Jack.”
“From the necrosis around the bite, it was venomous,” Ian said.
Jack paled even more. “F-” He couldn’t even get the oath out.
“Jack?” Carleton turned to study Jack’s face. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Jack managed, but his rapid shallow breathing and pallor said no.
Carleton gave Micki a look of reproof. “It’s not funny,” he said seriously.
Micki took pity on Jack. “Everybody out until we know the house is clear,” she said.
Jack didn’t have to be told again. “Bye. Meet you by the car.”
Carleton checked his watch. “Luckily I have a patient appointment at 6:30, so I’ll leave you all to your snake hunting.” He took a last look at the victim. “This killer is a fascinating personality. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this in the literature. I’ll do some in-depth research tonight. Consult with my colleagues.”
“Can you check on Jack?” Micki asked. “I’m feeling a little bad for laughing at him.”
Carleton nodded, a frown of reproach on his face. “I will. And you should.”
“I’ll wait outside with Jack,” Noah said when Carleton and Ian had gone, leaving just himself and Micki. And the victim, of course. He thought of Eve Wilson, sitting outside in his car. “And I want to know how Eve connects to it all. What do you know, Mick?”
“What happened to her, in Chicago… was bad. Any more needs to come from her.”
Micki’s eyes shadowed. “If you run into a wall, call Olivia Sutherland.”
“Olivia?” She was one of their homicide detectives. “How does she connect?”
“She’s a friend of Eve’s family. Just… be kind. And keep Jack muzzled.”
Monday, February 22, 5:15 p.m.
Detective Olivia Sutherland’s eyes were tearing over her partner’s dinner. “Jennie’s going to kill you when I tell her what you’ve been eating.” She waved the air between them. “Not that I need to. Those onions will do it for me.”
“She’s out of town,” Kane said. “Back on Thursday.” He waggled his brows in a way that always made her laugh. “Could be worse. Could be sardines.”
“God, I’m glad you gave that up.” She shuddered. “I’d forgotten about those.”
“What are you doing for dinner?”
“After that thing, I have no appetite. I got a few pounds left to lose anyway.”
“You’re fine.” Which was what he always said, but Olivia knew differently. She’d gained a little weight after some surgery a few years back and she still wasn’t back to top condition. She’d expected her metabolism would slow down, but she never dreamed it would happen at thirty-one. And of course Kane could eat whatever he wanted and never gain a damn ounce. It wasn’t fair. And it was disrupting her job.
“Which was why I lost that creep this afternoon,” she muttered. To be outrun by a teenager was one thing, but to lose a middle-aged dealer whose primary exercise was the heavy breathing he did while snorting coke… She was still kicking herself.
“Liv, he caught a ride. No way he could have outrun you like that. He’s probably in the wind,” Kane said, speaking of the DA’s star witness, the dealer who’d given her the slip. “We wait until he pops his head up again. DA doesn’t need him till next week.”
“You’re right,” she murmured, then answered her cell phone, knowing it was Abbott as soon as she heard the opening bars from “Bad to the Bone.” “Sutherland.”
“I need you two on this hanger case. We need to find one Cassandra Lee. She runs a phone sex operation called Siren Song.”
“We’re looking for Dustin Hanks,” she said. “DA needs him in court.”
“This is more important. Faye’s waiting with the addresses we have for this Lee.”
Olivia handed the phone to Kane. “It’s Faye. We’re being pulled into Webster’s hanger case. And try not to get onions in my phone.”
Monday, February 22, 6:45 p.m.
At least they hadn’t cuffed her again. Eve sat alone in the interview room at the precinct. It had been almost an hour. A cup of coffee sat untouched, its aroma taunting her churning stomach. All she could see in her mind was Christy Lewis. Hanging there.
Three women were dead. Somebody killed them. And they think I know who.
You have to tell them, Eve. You have to tell them everything.
Deliberately Eve turned her head and stared at what she knew was a two-way mirror. Her own eyes stared back, dark and angry. “Fine,” she muttered. “I will.”
“Excuse me?” The door opened and Webster came through it. Jack Phelps was right behind him. Jack had spoken. “We missed that.”
“You were watching me? All this time?”
“No. We came in just as you spoke.” Webster put a bag on the table. “A sandwich.”
She pushed it away. “I can’t eat. But thank you.”
Webster sat across the table. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with your boss.”
Eve kept her face expressionless, but her stomach turned over. Donner was going to shit a ring. When this had been about suicide, it had been possible a discipline committee would have taken her side over his. But it wasn’t about suicide or Martha’s state of mind. She was a lowly grad student who’d broken double-blind. I’m on my own.
The help she’d give the police would be at her own professional peril. “My boss.”
Webster’s eyes were steady as he studied her. Something had changed from when he’d first removed her cuffs and placed her in his car back at Christy’s house. He’d been disapproving then. Now, she saw gentleness. And concern. And compassion.
Dammit. He knew. She could always tell when they knew. No one in the bar ever asked, unless they were drunk, and Sal would kick their asses out of the place. But when they found out, they’d always look, and they’d whisper.
“Yes,” he said, “your boss. We need a personnel list.”
Eve frowned. “Why?”
“Because we need to know who’s in danger there.”
A personnel list? That didn’t make any sense. She was about to tell him so when the door opened and a well-dressed man in his mid-thirties entered.
“Don’t say a word,” he cautioned. It was Callie’s defense attorney date. “I’m Matthew Nillson. I’ve been retained as Eve’s attorney. May I speak with my client?”
“When did you call a lawyer?” Webster asked.
Eve shrugged, her eyes wide. “I didn’t.”
Matt shot her a warning look. “Make sure you turn the speaker off, Detective.” When they were gone, Matt sat. “Do you know the meaning of ‘Don’t say a word’?”
She ignored that, going for the obvious issue. “I can’t afford to pay you.”
“It’s okay. I do pro bono every so often. Callie called me. She drove to the scene, but the police said you’d been taken away. She was very upset.”
“I didn’t mean to scare her. Look, Matt, I really appreciate you coming, but I don’t think I need an attorney. After today I’ll need a new career, but not an attorney.”
“Callie said you’d say you didn’t need me. Did they let you keep your cell phone?”
Eve sighed. “No.”
He nodded, as if that were all the proof he needed. “Tell me your story, Eve. Let me decide if you need me or not.”
Eve considered it. “You’re my lawyer, right? So everything we say is privileged.”
He lifted his brows. “With a few exceptions.”
“I didn’t kill anybody. But, if you can secure anonymity for my testimony, that would be a big help. So. From the beginning. Two years ago I got into grad school…”
Monday, February 22, 7:00 p.m.
Abbott, Jack, and Noah stood at the mirror, watching Eve in the interview room with Matthew Nillson, the speaker turned off. “I want to know what she knows,” Abbott said. “Damn attorneys.”
“She’s probably worried she’s in trouble for being a phone sex provider,” Jack said. “We should have questioned her in the car.”
“Why didn’t you?” Abbott asked, annoyed.
“I wanted to,” Jack said. “Mr. White Knight here wouldn’t let me say a damn word.”
Noah glared at him before returning his attention to Eve. “I wanted to know what I was dealing with.” Now he did. And it was worse than he’d ever imagined.
Abbott blew out a breath. “Now she’s lawyered up.”
“I don’t think she killed any of these women, Bruce,” Noah said. “Do you?”
“I don’t want to. But until she tells us what she knows, she’s a suspect. Got it?”
Noah opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. “Got it.”
“So what are we dealing with?” Abbott asked.
Noah didn’t take his eyes off her face, not wanting to remember all the things he’d just read about Evelyn Jayne Wilson, knowing he’d never be able to forget. “She was assaulted, almost six years ago, left for dead. In fact she did die, twice, on the way to the hospital.” Bile burned his throat, thinking of what Eve had endured. Stabbed, strangled. Assaulted. “She recovered, some. Then two years later, she was kidnapped.”
Abbott’s eyes widened. “Same perp?”
“No, different one. She was working for a shelter aiding battered women escaping their abusers. Dangerous stuff. You remember that woman in Chicago a few years back? The one that kidnapped a deaf kid, then killed something like a dozen people?”
“Yeah,” Abbott said slowly and pointed to Eve. “You mean she…”
“Was kidnapped by this killer, too. The Chicago cops credit Eve with saving the kidnapped boy’s life. She didn’t kill these women, Bruce.”
Abbott sighed heavily. “But she knows who did.”
“She knows something. I think if she knew who did it, she would have already told us.”
“See if you can get her to talk about Siren Song, at least to tell us where we can find the owner, Cassandra Lee. I’ve got Sutherland and Kane looking for her.”
“And Sutherland and Kane found her.” Olivia Sutherland entered the observation room from the hall. “And lost her again. Faye said I’d find you here. Cassandra Lee lives in Uptown. By the time Kane and I got down there, she’d left. Her doorman said he hailed her a cab. He said he didn’t hear where she told the cab to go.”
“Did you believe him?” Noah asked.
Olivia shrugged. In her early thirties, she was blonde, graceful, and a damn good cop. Micki said Olivia was Eve’s family friend. Noah had questions, but he’d save them.
“No,” she said, “but we couldn’t prove he was lying. Kane’s pulling her credit cards to try to track her. We alerted area airports, bus stations, and rental car facilities.” She started, staring at the mirror. “What’s Eve Wilson doing here?”
“She found the last victim,” Noah said. “She called me.”
Olivia’s lips closed tightly.
“What?” Abbott demanded.
“She called me, too,” Olivia said. “Earlier this afternoon. She left a message on my phone at my desk. I was just about to call her back. How does she know the victim?”
“Victims,” Abbott said. “She knew Martha and Christy. From Siren Song.”
“No way. No how. Eve is not mixed up with sex ops. Let me talk to her.”
“That’s her lawyer,” Jack said. “Good luck.”
Olivia knocked on the window and Matthew Nillson came out to the observation room. “I’m a family friend. I’m going to talk to her.”
Olivia started to push past, but Nillson stopped her. “My client wants to talk to you all, too, but she’s afraid of the impact it will have on her work.”
“What impact?” Jack asked. “Guys call, get off, she gets paid. Where’s the impact?”
Nillson stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Your client,” Abbott said. “She works for a company called Siren Song. They provide phone sex services.”
Nillson was still staring. “And you think Eve works for them?”
“She knew Martha Brisbane from work,” Noah said. “Martha worked for Siren Song.”
“We have epic misunderstanding here,” Nillson said. “Eve’s a grad student working on her master’s in psychology. She knows Martha and Christy through her duties there. She thought it was strange that you asked for a personnel list. Now that makes sense.”
“So Eve doesn’t work for Siren Song?” Abbott asked carefully.
Thank God. When Noah saw her at Martha’s, he’d thought it was fate. Maybe it was.
Nillson shook his head. “Um, no. She does not work for Siren Song.”
“Told you,” Olivia said with satisfaction. “So why did she want a lawyer?”
“Because she’s found herself in a corner. She’s seen information she shouldn’t have seen. Information that led her to two of the victims. She’s worried that if her role in helping you comes out, she’ll be expelled. She’d like to be a confidential informant.”
“A CI?” She was staring into the mirror, but Noah got the impression she wasn’t looking at them, but at herself. He’d watched her tending bar, watching everyone else so cautiously. Knowing about her background, her innate caution made perfect sense.
He’d watched her, wishing he was a different man, wanting to shield her from himself. Now she needed shielding from whatever danger she’d stumbled into.
Noah cleared his throat. “We can proceed on a CI basis, right, Bruce?”
Abbott was also watching Eve, thoughtfully. He nodded. “Okay. For now.”
“Then, let’s begin,” Matthew said. “She has a hell of a story for you.”
Monday, February 22, 7:20 p.m.
Eve was relieved when Olivia came through the door. Webster and Phelps followed, along with Abbott, their captain. Matt closed the door as Olivia took the seat next to her.
“They’ve agreed to keep your role confidential,” Matt said taking his seat.
Eve nodded, still guarded. “I appreciate that.”
Webster sat across from her. Again, something was different. Where she’d seen anger and compassion, now his eyes flickered with relief. Matt looked almost amused.
Abbott reached across the table to shake her hand. “I’m Captain Abbott.”
“I know. Vodka, straight up.”
“We’re very interested to hear your story,” Abbott said.
Jack Phelps hadn’t said anything at all, which was highly uncharacteristic. He stood off to the side, back against the wall, watching. He seemed… disappointed.
Eve glanced at Olivia. “What just happened?”
Olivia’s lips twitched. “I’ll tell you later. It’ll make your day.”
Webster looked uncomfortable. “We’re ready to listen.”
Eve met his eyes, again sensing she could trust him. Six years had taught her a great deal about who she could trust. Webster was the real deal. “I wanted to tell you earlier, but I wasn’t sure you’d believe me. I’m not sure I believe me. I’m a grad student. I’ve wanted to become a therapist for a long time. To help victims of violent crime.”
Webster nodded. “I understand.”
She was certain that he now did. “I’ll tell you what I know. But first, can you tell me when Christy died?” Please say it was before I met you on Martha’s doorstep. She’d been rehashing that moment in her mind, hoping her selfish desire to keep her secret hadn’t cost Christy Lewis her life.
“The ME thinks it was sometime early this morning,” Webster said kindly.
Relief had her shoulders slumping. “Thank you. All right. My thesis is on the use of the virtual world to improve self-esteem.”
“Virtual world?” Abbott asked with a frown.
“RPG. Role play games,” Eve added when he still frowned. “Like Shadowland.”
“It’s a computer game,” Olivia said.
“It’s more than a game,” Eve said. “It’s a community. You can meet people, have a job, buy property. All with complete anonymity. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
“Their motto is ‘Sometimes you want to go where no one knows your name,’ ” Jack said. “I’ve played. A little.”
“Well, a lot of people can’t play ‘a little.’ Martha couldn’t. That’s why we picked her for my study. I wanted to tap the potential of the virtual world as a teaching tool. Like a big flight simulator, only to teach life skills, socialization. I wanted to help people who couldn’t function in the real world to… practice in the virtual world.”
“So a person who was socially clueless could learn to interact without the fear of rejection,” Webster said.
“Yes. I want to help these people leave the virtual world and make lives for themselves in the real one. This is important to me. I’ve worked hard to get here, to get into grad school, and I didn’t want to lose it. Which is why I didn’t tell you earlier.”
“All right,” Webster said. “So where do Martha and Christy fit in?”
“We recruited subjects for my study. People who’d never played before, like Christy Lewis. People who dabbled, like Detective Phelps. And what we called our ‘ultra-users,’ like Martha Brisbane. Martha averaged eighteen hours a day in Shadowland.”
“Eighteen hours?” Abbott said, shaking his head. “How did she have a life?”
“I wondered how Martha made a living, because she was in the game all the time.”
At that Webster actually blushed. Eve glanced around, only to find everyone in the room casting their eyes everywhere but at her. “Okay, what did I miss?”
Olivia sighed. “Martha was a phone sex operator, Eve. When you told Detective Webster that you knew her from her work…”
Eve’s mouth fell open. “That explains a lot.” She felt her own cheek heat and knew her face was aflame, leaving her scar starkly white. “For the record, I don’t do… that.”
Webster cleared his throat. “I’m sorry we thought so.”
A hysterical giggle bubbled up and she shoved it back. “Okay. Moving right along.”
“Your study,” Olivia prompted.
“Our subjects do exercises to increase self-awareness. Like find three people with whom you have something in common. It started out by them finding people that looked like them. Or their avatars. Later, they dug deeper for hobbies and personal interests.”
“Avatars?” Abbott asked, then shrugged. “Sorry. I’m old.”
Eve smiled at him. “No, you’re not. An avatar is like a game piece. Like when you play Monopoly, you’re always the…?”
“Shoe,” he said.
“I’m the iron,” she confided and Abbott smiled back. “An avatar is what you look like in the virtual world. Martha was a sex goddess named Desiree. Christy was a former Miss Universe and champion ballroom dancer named Gwenivere.”
“Who are you?” Webster asked softly and she started, not expecting the question.
“Me? Oh, lots of different people,” she evaded. “But for the purposes of this study, I started as Pandora. I own a shop called Façades Face Emporium. I sell avatars.”
“Sell?” Abbott leaned forward, interest in his eyes. “You sell things in this world?”
“You can sell all kinds of things. When you enter the game you can design your own avatar, but it’s from a template. If you want anything more unique, you pay someone. I don’t charge a lot for my avatars, which is why I get a lot of business, especially with people new to the World.”
“Like many of your test subjects,” Webster said.
“You were watching them,” Jack said. “As Pandora.”
Eve nodded. “Yes. That’s where I get into trouble.”
“Why were you watching them?” Webster asked.
“My concern was having subjects abuse Shadowland. The ultra-users did, but they were our control. I worried that people who had full lives in the real world would be sucked in, so I monitored usage. We also measured personality changes. Mood swings, changes in sleep, missing work. And suicidal tendencies.”
“Oh.” Webster leaned back, understanding in his eyes. “You read Martha committed suicide. You thought it had something to do with your study. With the game.”
“That was my fear. I’d wanted to test subjects monthly for mood changes, but my advisor wouldn’t approve that frequency. We tested every three months instead. I was, and still am, worried that that’s not often enough.”
“So you monitored them from the inside,” Abbott said. “Clever.”
“And against the rules, Captain. I was only supposed to know these people by a number. I got worried when a few of them started spending huge hours in the World. It was like recruiting people for a gambling study and watching them become overnight addicts. It was taking over their lives.”
“So you went undercover,” Olivia said.
Eve nodded. “I opened Façades and waited for people to come to me. It was the least intrusive method I could conceive. I could chat with them, gauge their moods, and they didn’t know who I was. Martha’s Desiree was one of my best customers. She was an obsessive face upgrader. Then about a week ago, Desiree disappeared.”
“What did you do?” Webster asked.
“Worried. Hoped Martha had gone on a real-world vacation, but I knew she hadn’t. She was hard-core. And she’d been like that for months before the study began.”
Webster frowned. “How long had she been a gamer, in total?”
“I’d have to check my notes, but maybe a year?”
Webster looked over his shoulder at Phelps. “It’s when everything changed for her.”
Phelps was nodding. “The mess in her apartment, missing her bills. The fights with her mother. Makes sense. So Martha disappeared. Then what?”
“I went looking for her. I didn’t find Martha, but I did find Christy. Every single night Christy would go to the club. It’s called The Ninth Circle.”
“Of hell?” Webster winced. “Lovely.”
“It’s a dance club, a social center. Christy’s Gwenivere was a party girl. I’d use Greer-that’s another of my avatars-to check on her and my other red-zones, the subjects I most worried about.”
“How many red-zones do you have?” Webster asked.
“Right now, five more, with another dozen brewing. I just checked on Christy last night, when I got home from Sal’s. She was dancing and flirting, same old.”
“So how did you know who these people were in real life?” Jack asked.
“This is where I really get into trouble. I broke double-blind.”
The detectives glanced at one another, their confusion clear.
“Double-blind means I don’t know who they are and they don’t know which group they’re in. It’s supposed to be sacrosanct.”
“But you peeked,” Olivia murmured.
“Big time.” Eve rubbed a tight cord in the back of her neck. “I broke in, located the test numbers of the subjects I was most concerned about, and their real-world names.”
“And real-world addresses?” Webster asked sharply.
Eve closed her eyes, trying to figure out how to keep Ethan’s involvement secret. “Not until today. I needed to know where to find Christy. I’d just come from Martha’s. You said she’d been murdered. And here’s where it gets incredibly unbelievable.”
Eve looked at Webster. “I’d set a Google Alert for Martha. This morning it popped up, with an article saying she’d committed suicide. I didn’t know what to do. I ended up going to my advisor. I told him about Martha.”
“You admitted you broke the double-blind?” Webster asked. “That was brave.”
“It was the right thing to do,” she said and saw respect in his eyes. “I couldn’t let anyone else’s life be ruined by this study. But my advisor got angry. I gave him a printout of the article about Martha. He… shredded it and told me I’d never seen it.”
“Bastard,” Abbott murmured.
“Technically, he was right. Morally he wasn’t. I knew where Christy worked. She’d told me about her job when she came to Pandora’s. Christy was lonely. She just wanted to talk. She was worried about getting fired for being online so much, but couldn’t stop.”
“She was addicted,” Webster said quietly and Eve nodded sadly.
“I went to see her in real life, but she hadn’t come to work. I thought she was home, playing. I thought if I couldn’t find Christy, I should at least pay my respects to Martha. That’s when I saw you, Detective Webster.”
“And when you called me?” Olivia asked.
“Not yet. I went home, got online.” Eve felt her heart start racing all over again. “I went to Christy’s house, in the World. There was a black wreath on the door and…” She swallowed hard. “She was hanging. And her shoes had fallen off.”
“How?” Webster asked, his eyes narrowed.
“The same way they were in the real world. I almost called 911, but it sounded too crazy. So I called Olivia here at the station. I didn’t have her cell.”
“That’ll change,” Olivia said. “My sister will kick my ass if anything happens to you.”
Eve’s smile was wan. “Can’t have that. I figured you could get her address, that you could check on her and make sure she was okay. I didn’t think you’d think I was crazy.”
“How did you find Christy’s address?” Webster asked, more quietly this time.
“Don’t answer that,” Matt said, then lifted his brows at Webster’s scowl. “For now.”
“I went to see Christy,” Eve said, “hoping it was a sick joke. But it wasn’t.”
“What about Martha’s door?” Webster asked. “Did it have a black wreath, too?”
“I didn’t check today. I was too rattled. But it didn’t as of yesterday.”
“Let’s check when we’re done here,” Webster said. “What about Samantha Altman?”
“She may live in Shadowland, but she wasn’t in my study. I’m sorry.”
“How do you know?” Webster pressed, and Matt Nillson stepped in.
“All you need to know is that Eve checked the list and Altman wasn’t there.”
Webster shook his head. “Two of my victims were in her study. Not a coincidence.”
“That’s exactly what it is. Hear me out,” Eve added. “Two victims spent inordinate amounts of time in the virtual world. Your third might have, too, but not as part of my study. Whoever killed them knew Christy played, because he simmed the crime scene.”
“Simmed?” Abbott said.
“I’m sorry, Captain. Simulated. Maybe he knew all three from the World. Maybe he preyed on them there.” That Christy wouldn’t have been there except for her study was something Eve couldn’t dwell on right now. The guilt would come later.
Webster was shaking his head. “What are the odds that he’d meet two of your test subjects at random, Eve?”
“Pretty high, if he’s local. We required our subjects to come in for evaluations. They had to be local. We stacked the deck, geographically speaking. If he was looking for women from the Cities, he would have had a larger-than-average pool to choose from.”
“That does make sense,” Webster admitted.
“And we don’t even know if Samantha Altman was a player,” Abbott said.
“Gamer,” Eve murmured.
“Gamer,” Abbott repeated. “Until we find differently, Samantha was not a gamer.”
“The other connection,” Jack said, “could be Siren Song.”
“Or something you don’t know yet,” Abbott said. “For now, we assume nothing.”
“At least we know he met Christy in this Shadowland,” Webster said. “We need to use that to find him. Will you help us?”
“Of course. Tell me what you need me to do.”
Monday, February 22, 7:45 p.m.
Liza had held her tears until she’d made it home from the police station. Sitting at her kitchen table, she looked again at the paper the officer had given her. She’d gone to file a missing person report and the officer had put the information in the computer.
Then he’d looked at her with a frown. “You said your sister cleaned buildings.”
“She does,” Liza had insisted, but he’d shaken his head.
“Afraid not.” He’d turned his monitor so she could see for herself.
She was still… stunned, two hours later. A mug shot. SOLICITATION, the charge read. “We picked Lindsay up for hooking two months ago. You didn’t know?”
Lindsay had chosen to… sell herself. And now she was missing. I have to find her.
She didn’t have the first idea of where to begin looking. She’d figure it out. She’d find some hookers, start asking questions. Somebody must know her sister. Somebody must have seen her. I have to know.
Lindsay could be alive somewhere, hurt. Needing me. I have to try.
Monday, February 22, 8:15 p.m.
Amazing.” Abbott watched as Eve sat at his desk showing them Shadowland.
Noah sat on Eve’s right, more interested in the focus in her face. She was giving them what she knew in a professional way. Well, almost everything she knew.
Her attorney sat at the round table across from Abbott’s desk, as did Olivia, two people who wanted to protect Eve Wilson. So I’m not the only one.
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Can you see the screen, Detective?”
She didn’t like to be watched. “Yes. Can you show us your Pandora avatar shop?”
“I thought we were waiting for Detective Phelps.”
“He’s gone back to the crime scene. He’ll join us if he’s able.”
“All right.” She typed in a few commands. “Welcome to Façades Face Emporium.”
Abbott let out a low whistle. “All those faces. That’s just damn creepy.”
One side of her mouth lifted. Noah had always thought she’d conjured her Mona Lisa smile. Now he knew a monster had cut her face, damaging nerves on one side.
“Like an old Vincent Price flick,” she said. She clicked her mouse, bringing up a female avatar with blonde hair and a sweet face. “Meet Pandora. She runs the shop.”
Pandora. She’d known all of this would bring her grief, but she’d done it anyway.
“Customers come in, try on faces,” she said. “We chat. It’s almost… real.”
“Indeed,” Abbott said. “Show me Martha Brisbane’s face.”
“Here are Desiree’s last six faces, top quality. Martha had Shadow-bucks to burn.”
“Where did she get it?” Noah asked. The faces were ethereal. Beautiful.
“I don’t know. Most serious gamers keep a balance sheet. It would be on her PC.”
Micki had found nothing on Martha’s computer. Noah hoped Christy’s wasn’t wiped.
“What do you do with the money you earn, Eve?” Olivia asked from the round table.
“Mostly pay the rent. Façades is on the Strip. Location, location, location. What’s left, Pandora donates to virtual charity.” Again the half smile. “She’s a community activist.”
As was Eve. “You designed all these faces?” Noah asked and she nodded.
“I wanted to be an artist, long time ago. But my hand was damaged, so I got into graphic design. Drawing faces was much easier with a mouse than a pen.”
That she’d begun creating faces when hers was scarred was insight he didn’t think she’d want him to pick up. “You’re very good,” he said and her cheeks pinked.
“Thank you. I’ve studied faces for a long time. People make instant decisions about whom to trust, and facial features are key. I track the faces my customers choose with what kind of character they become. Kind of a side psychology hobby. Where to next?”
“Martha’s virtual house first,” Noah said.
“Let’s get Greer.” A redhead appeared, very buxom and very sparsely clothed.
Abbott choked on a laugh. “Well, nobody’s gonna be able to describe her face.”
“That was the idea,” she said, embarrassed, then rolled her eyes. “Geeze.”
Noah bit back a smile. “I got the meaning behind Pandora. Why Greer?”
She shrugged self-consciously. “It means ‘guardian’ or ‘protector.’ ”
“I see.” And what he saw, he liked. Very much. Fate, he thought. Maybe.
A cell phone rang. “Mine,” Olivia said. “Miss Lee, Siren Song, just checked in for her flight to Vancouver. I’m meeting Kane at the airport. You’ll bring me up to speed?”
“Of course,” Noah said. “Call us when you get Miss Lee.”
“Thanks, Olivia,” Eve called. “This is the trendy part of the city,” she said as Greer strode confidently down a crowded street. “Martha’s Desiree lived well.”
“Is it always dark outside?” Abbott asked.
“No. It runs on real time. If you work real-world days, you play in virtual-world nights.”
“Or you can spend eighteen hours a day online like Martha did,” Noah said.
“Too many do.” Eve walked Greer down a hallway. “There’s Martha’s black wreath.”
It spanned the width of the door. “This wasn’t there yesterday?” Noah asked.
“No. You want me to go inside?”
“Depends,” Noah said dryly. “Do you need a virtual warrant?”
Eve smiled. “I have connections. If I need a warrant later, I can get one.”
“Then by all means.” But levity vanished when Greer opened the door and he stared, stunned. “Damn. It’s just like the real scene. Down to the shoes.”
Eve zoomed in on the avatar’s face. “Whoever did this accessed Martha’s online file. He made up her Desiree face like a hooker’s, which means he edited her avatar.”
“I thought it was your avatar,” Abbott said. “Your design.”
“Some designers lock their code so clients can’t alter anything. I leave mine open.”
“Don’t your customers go in and edit themselves?” Noah asked.
“Sometimes. Mostly they just change their dress colors. Whoever changed Desiree’s face was in Martha’s file and may have left something behind. Did you find her computer?”
“Yeah, but it was wiped,” Noah said. “We’re trying to lift data from the drive.”
“That would be a way,” she murmured, emphasizing the a.
Noah leaned forward a hair. “There’s another way?”
She leaned back a hair. “Well, sure. You can ask ShadowCo nicely to let you into her file or… your forensic people can hack their way in from another computer.”
“You wouldn’t know how to do that, would you, Eve?” Abbott asked.
“Eve,” Matthew warned from his seat at the table.
Noah had almost forgotten he was there. He wondered how to make him leave.
Eve smiled wryly. “It’s really not that hard. High school kids do it all the time.”
She hadn’t denied hacking, Noah noted. “Take us to the club. Ninth Circle.”
The club was a neon castle where flames burst from the turrets. Greer pushed her way in, stride confident. Eve moved that way, tall and sure of her own space. He wondered how she’d managed that given her past.
“The band sucks,” he said, wincing at the screeching noise.
“True. But nobody comes here for the music. What do you want to see?”
“Do you see who Christy was dancing with last night?” Noah asked.
She searched the room bursting with gyrating avatars. “No. He was one of Claudio’s. Claudio runs the most exclusive avatar shop in Shadowland. But the dancer-guy’s not here now. And I never spoke to him so I don’t know his screen name.”
“Write down a description,” Abbott said. “We can track him through his registration.”
“Maybe,” Eve said doubtfully. “If he used his real name. Hardly anyone does. The only place you’ll find real personal info is through the banks and money exchanges.”
“Follow the virtual money,” Noah said. “I guess that’s true everywhere.”
She logged off. “I’ll get on later from home. If I see him, I’ll call you right away.”
“Don’t approach him,” Noah said. “We’ll take it from here.”
She nodded, her dark eyes serious. “Of course.”
He knew she lied, but didn’t care. Let her hack in. It would save them a lot of time.
Matthew Nillson had also risen. “I’ll take you home, Eve.”
I don’t think so, Noah thought. He thought about the flash of hunger he’d seen in her eyes the night before. That their paths had crossed today could be no accident.
“I’d prefer if someone could take me to my car,” she said. “It’s still up at Christy’s.”
“Then I’ll take you. It’s still a crime scene,” Noah said when Nillson started to object.
“It’s okay,” Eve said to Nillson. “I’ll be careful of what I say.”
“For the record, I’m telling you it’s not wise,” he said and she smiled, then winked.
“Thanks for helping me. I’ll give Callie a good report. I’m ready, Detective. Let’s go.”
Monday, February 22, 9:00 p.m.
Webster’s inside source had been at Christy Lewis’s house and in all the excitement had dropped her keys. Careless of her, he thought as he crept up the three flights of stairs to her apartment. She wasn’t home now, but she’d be back. He could wait.
She’d have to catch a ride with someone else as she had no car key. He doubted Eve was as foolish as Christy, who’d kept keys under her doormat and under her car.
He hoped whoever brought Eve home would just drop her off at the front entrance downstairs, where he would be waiting. He hoped she’d be alone, for her companion’s sake and his own. He’d killed two at a time before, but it was logistically more difficult.
It would look as if she’d left town for a few days. Finding a dead body could be so stressful, after all. He wanted Eve silenced. He wanted no connection between her thesis and his six victims. She shouldn’t know of any connection. She shouldn’t know Christy was a participant in her study. And maybe she didn’t, but he wouldn’t count on it.
He opened her front door and slipped inside. She was tidy, but her roof leaked. If he had to listen to that constant dripping into pots, it would certainly make him insane.
Eve wouldn’t have to worry about the dripping for much longer. The gun in his pocket would ensure her compliance as he forced her into his SUV. The syringe in his other pocket would keep her quiet during transport. Disposal in his pit would ensure no one would ever find her. And whatever happened in between… Icing on the cake.
To his surprise he saw her laptop on the arm of a stuffed chair. He hadn’t expected she’d leave it behind. He’d definitely be taking that with him. But there should be more. Papers. Notes. He needed everything connecting to her thesis. He was searching her desk when he heard a door slam below. Damn. He’d wanted to catch her downstairs.
“Evie?” A man was coming. Footsteps pounded as the man ran up the stairs. “Evie?”
Her door stood ajar and there was no time to close it. He darted into the coat closet empty-handed, listening, pulse racing. I should have grabbed the laptop first and run.
“Evie?” The man pushed the front door open. Through a crack in the closet door he watched him come into the living room and stop a foot from where he hid. All he could hear was the pounding of his own heart as he lifted his eyes, higher, assessing the stranger. The man was big, far too big to overpower long enough to get a syringe in his neck. Shoot him. Now. But that would leave quite a mess and getting that gorilla body down three flights of stairs would be difficult to say the least.
Perspiration beaded his forehead and he stood poised, his finger on the trigger.
“Evie. You left your door unlocked. Again.” The man’s annoyance became fear and he rushed back to the bedroom. “Evie?”
Get the laptop. He slipped from the closet and took a step toward the stuffed chair when he heard footsteps returning. Damn. Leaving the laptop, he ran through the door and down the first flight as Eve’s visitor came rushing back to the living room.
He crept down the remaining stairs and climbed into his SUV, adrenaline pumping. A red pickup truck was parked on the street. It had not been there when he went in.
He brought up a license plate lookup site on his BlackBerry and keyed in the man’s Illinois plate. His name was David Hunter. Means nothing to me. Maybe he’ll go away.
He certainly hoped so, because if not, he’d have to get rid of him, too. Because eliminating Eve was of paramount importance. She knew far too much.
Monday, February 22, 9:15 p.m.
“I can bring you back tomorrow, and you can search for your keys in the daylight,” Webster said as he pulled away from Christy’s house.
“I must have dropped them when I got cuffed.”
He hesitated. “They didn’t hurt you, did they?”
Treating her carefully was a common reaction of people on learning of her assault. Normally it annoyed, but tonight, coming from him… it hurt.
“No,” she said sharply, then sighed. “I can always tell when someone knows what happened. That you found out is okay, but it’s not okay to treat me like I’m broken, because I’m not.” She smiled to soften her words. “Everyone wants to know about my scar, and the evil villains, and what it was like to die, and did I see bright lights and God. You’ve got questions. Stop tiptoeing around and ask them.”
He shot her one of his unreadable glances before returning his eyes to the road. The minutes ticked by as she waited for him to ask what he really wanted to know, but he didn’t. Instead the air between them grew heavy. Charged. Dangerous, even.
Which seemed dichotomous as she actually felt safer right here, right now, with him, than she had in years. The danger was the same she sensed every time she watched him framed in Sal’s doorway. That feeling of standing on the edge. A precipice.
Of putting out her foot and feeling only air.
Hot, heavy air. It was intoxicating. Her skin tingled and her body throbbed even as she told herself it wasn’t going to happen. Still, it compelled her to ask what she’d wanted to know for a year. “Why do you come to a bar and drink tonic water?”
He started. “What?”
“I’ve filled your drink order for a year. You never drink anything but water. Why?”
“Because I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he said, then glanced over, as if surprised he’d told her. “That’s not in my personnel jacket.”
“Bartenders don’t tell. But that wasn’t really my question. Why come to Sal’s at all?”
She knew, but felt a perverse need to hear him say it out loud. That’s cruel, Eve. Making him admit he wants you might make you feel better, stronger, but it’ll hurt him. You can’t give him what he needs. You can’t give any man what he needs. So let it go.
His jaw tightened. “I guess I like to people watch.”
“So do I. Now, your partner, on the other hand… Jack’s not a watcher.”
“He’s a live wire,” Webster murmured. “Life of the party.”
“That’s what he wants everyone to believe. But I think he’s alone, even in a crowd.”
“I don’t think he’d like to hear that.” But he agreed, she could tell.
“I’m sure he wouldn’t. But I can see it in his eyes, every time he hits on me when he fetches your tonic water for you.”
His hands tightened on the wheel. “You want me to tell him to stop hitting on you?”
End this right now, Eve. Don’t hurt him. “It doesn’t really matter, the result would be the same. I’m not… available. For anyone.” It was as kind as she could make it.
He blew out a long breath. “I see.”
She could see he did. “I’m sorry, Noah,” she said softly. And she was. Very much so.
He kneaded the steering wheel. “I never would have said anything to you.”
“I know. And I’m flattered, but I didn’t want you wondering. You’re too nice for that.”
His smile was grim. “Sometimes,” he said cryptically. “I’m ready to ask my question.”
She studied his profile, clinically, she told herself. But it wasn’t true. Normally she clenched her hands to keep from touching her own scar, but at this moment she did so to keep from touching his face. Just a few feet away. His cheeks were stubbled and she wondered how that would feel. Against her fingertips. Against her own cheek.
That she’d never find out was a bitter pill to swallow. “So ask.”
He turned to look at her, his eyes intense. “Why are you not available for anyone?”
Her chest hurt, but she kept her face impassive. “If I told you that was too personal?”
“Then I’d accept that. I understand about keeping secrets to yourself.”
But he’d told her a secret and she felt compelled to do the same. “I lied,” she said simply. “I am broken. Therefore, unavailable.”
A muscle twitched in his taut jaw. “I don’t believe that.”
Her throat grew tight. “You don’t know me.”
He was quiet for a beat. “That’s fair. But that can change. Let me know you.”
“Do you know how much I wish that was possible?” she said, very quietly. Her voice trembled and she firmed it. “But it’s not. I’d appreciate if you would accept that. I’ll be happy to help you in any way I can with this case. But it has to end there. I’m sorry.”
She watched him swallow, his jaw clench. “All right,” he said finally, harshly. “Then tell me about the women in your study who become addicted to this virtual world.”
“Because your study is the link, Eve. Whoever killed at least two of these women hunted them in your game. He understands them, or that part of them at least. To catch him, I have to think like him. So help me see the victims the way he does.”
She almost smiled. In helping him understand his victims, she’d be sharing a great deal of herself. And she was certain he knew that. “All right. That I can do.”
Monday, February 22, 10:00 p.m.
Bitch. He backed away from the blinged-out, bleached-blonde bimbo avatar, tempted for a brief moment to abandon his plan and take her out next, wherever she lived.
Drop dead, she’d said. Women were rude when they thought they were anonymous. He hadn’t wanted to buy her a drink. It was just his way of keeping his avatar moving. In Ninth Circle, the avatar that stopped got attention. He did not want attention.
He was furious that he’d missed Eve, more furious that he’d been forced to run. He’d logged in to Shadowland before he’d properly calmed down. That was a good way to make a mistake. He couldn’t afford any mistakes.
The cops knew Eve, so they knew about Shadowland. Right now there wasn’t much they could do about that. No one knew he was here and if they did, no one knew who he was. Importantly, no one knew who he’d target next.
The blonde bitch wasn’t on his list. He made his way through the crowd, searching for the one he’d come to see. Rachel Ward. He’d been looking forward to this one.
Rachel married young, but never reached her fifth anniversary. She’d botched it all, having affairs while her husband drove a truck to support them. The husband found out and, appropriately angry, had set fire to the motel in which Rachel met her lovers.
Her lover was killed. Rachel had nearly died of smoke inhalation. Now, five years later, Rachel’s husband sat in prison and she had a very understandable fear of fire.
Rachel worked hard all day. But at night, she played-in the virtual world. She was Delilah, a cabaret dancer performing four times a week at the Casino Royale. Tonight she was off, which meant he’d find her here, in Ninth Circle. She’d go “home” with whoever was first to buy her a drink. He’d been first a few times.
She’d fallen for the sweet virtual pillow talk afterward. He was shy, he’d told her, with women in general. It was why he’d never had a real date, why he worked all the time, on the road five nights a week, filling his lonely nights in cheap motel rooms with virtual dancing and virtual sex. She’d pitied him. She was lonely, too, she said. And needy.
He guessed so. Five years was a long time to be celibate when she’d been such a whore, and virtual sex had to pale in comparison to the real thing.
If you’re ever near Minneapolis, give me a shout, she’d said. We’ll have a drink. Maybe do some real dancing. Tonight he’d give her that shout. He’d tell her he was coming to the Twin Cities on business, but for only one night. Tomorrow night.
That would give him time to pull everything he needed together.
She set the virtual dance floor on fire, but tomorrow it was Rachel who would burn.
He glanced up, startled by the beam of headlights. He closed his laptop, hoping the driver had not seen the glow of his screen. It was Noah Webster. Driving Eve home.
He glanced at his clock, surprised by how much time had passed. He’d thought he had been in the game for only a few minutes, but the software ran slower, took longer when he used his wireless card. I shouldn’t have been searching for Rachel. I should have been watching for Eve.
With that man still in her apartment, his only chance to grab Eve would have been at the downstairs door as she went inside. Now she was already home, and, as expected, she was not alone. Unfortunately, he doubted Webster would just drop her off and drive away. Webster was too much the white knight, he thought bitterly.
There would be no opportunity tonight, unless he shot her from where he sat, but he’d have to take out Webster first. He hated to do that. Not that he was averse to killing a cop, of course. But if Webster dies now, his death will overshadow my case. The press would be sympathetic to a cop killed in the line of duty and all the wonderful outrage he was about to whip up would be gone before it started.
There wasn’t much choice. To get to Eve tonight, he had to go through Webster.
Unless he waited. He had her keys. He could return to her apartment once the guy with the pickup truck left. He frowned. If he left. Hunter might sleep over. He might be Eve’s boyfriend. So be it. If Hunter didn’t leave, he’d kill them both. He’d wait until Hunter was asleep. Horizontal. Once Hunter was out of the way, transporting Eve to his basement would be much easier.
He liked that idea better. Better to save cop killings for the end, when the public would think they’d gotten what they deserved. He slid his laptop into its case, put his SUV in gear, and drove away. He’d be back later.
Monday, February 22, 10:00 p.m.
Harvey Farmer stopped his car a block behind Webster’s. The detectives had split up, so he and Dell had as well. Dell was following Phelps. Harvey wasn’t sure that was always such a good idea. The boy had a hair-trigger temper. He hoped his surviving son had grown enough sense not to kill Phelps before they had the information to ruin them.
Harvey wanted Phelps ruined, then dead. No martyred cops on my watch.
He’d followed Webster from the station to the crime scene and now here, the home of the woman who’d been searching the scene for her keys, which she had not found. He wondered how she fit. It was the second time today he’d seen her with Webster.
He hadn’t noticed Webster with any women and he’d been watching him for a long time. He coached pee-wee basketball on Saturdays and on Sundays had dinner with his cop cousin. Mondays he went to Sal’s, and Tuesdays he hit his AA meeting downtown.
That Webster would have a woman made Harvey clench his teeth. His son had planned to raise a family, but VJ would never get that chance. Webster and Phelps had stolen one son’s life. Sent Dell into a depression that had the boy half crazy.
Me, too. He hadn’t had decent sleep in a year. But it would be worth it. Webster hadn’t mistepped, but he would. He had before. It was a matter of time.
He hid his face as a black SUV slid by. He didn’t want any notice until he was ready.
Monday, February 22, 10:00 p.m.
Noah had listened as she’d talked about the women she’d known as Gwenivere and Desiree and now he better understood the victims, and Eve. They weren’t so different, he and Eve. But she wasn’t ready to hear that. Yet.
“Thank you. Comparing the victims’ attraction to the virtual world to an addiction puts it in terms I can better understand,” he said and she sighed, just a little.
“When we can’t meet our needs with what we possess, some of us look for escape, rather than try to change what’s keeping us from what we crave. Change is hard.”
“And addiction is a means, or perhaps the consequence of escape,” he said.
“True. People get sucked in to Shadowland because what they find there meets their needs. Excitement. Attention. Love. Escape from a real world they can’t deal with.” She shrugged. “A lot of the same reasons people drink or do drugs.”
There was so much more he wanted to hear her tell him. But it was late and she was pulling on her gloves. “How will you get in without your keys?”
“My friend Callie has a set. I texted her to bring them over. She should only be a few minutes, so you can go if you want. I’ll be fine.”
Noah bit back his impatience. “Eve, even if Samantha Altman wasn’t in your study, you are connected to two dead women. How do you know you’re not a target?”
“I guess I don’t,” she said, but she clearly didn’t believe she was.
“That doesn’t seem to worry you as much as it should.”
She drummed her fingers on her knee. “Well, I’ve been thinking.”
“Why am I not surprised?” he asked and she smiled wryly.
“Just listen. Let’s assume he met all three victims in Shadowland. He chats them up. Sometimes people forget they’re playing a role. They get caught up and become themselves again. Christy did when she came to Façades. She probably did with him, too. He finds where they live, landmarks around their house where people hang out. You hear of kids being targeted online like this, but adults forget they’re vulnerable, too.”
“Okay. He finds out where they live or he lures them to a meeting place.”
“Exactly. ‘You like sunsets, I like sunsets. You like long walks on a snowy day, me, too. We have so much in common, let’s meet IRL.’ ”
“In real life. So they meet and the women either take him home or he follows them. He could be local or he could be hitting women all over the country.”
“That makes me feel better,” Noah said sarcastically and her dark eyes flashed.
“I’m not trying to make you feel better. I’m trying to keep from having another woman’s blood on my hands.”
“So you do believe your study is involved.”
“Only because that’s why Christy was in Shadowland to begin with. Martha was there before I started my study and Samantha wasn’t in my study at all. The point is, he’s probably making contact with them. I’m not planning to meet anyone I meet online, so I’m safe. So don’t worry. You worry too much.”
“So do you, Greer the Guardian,” he said softly and her cheeks heated prettily.
He wished he could touch, but knew she’d pull away. Last night he’d been prepared to walk away, for her own good. Now… this was a sign too bold to ignore.
They were at a crossroads, he and Eve. She meant to walk on alone. He didn’t. But he wouldn’t push tonight. She’d said no, after all.
“Touché.” She got out of the car. “Thanks for the ride home. You can go. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t be stup-” He caught himself. “Stubborn,” he amended, then frowned when a shadow moved across a third-floor lighted window. “Do you have a roommate?”
She looked up at the window, worried. “No. If I did, I’d have knocked on the door.”
“Then come, but stay downstairs.” He ran up the stairs, tried the doorknob, hand on his gun, stepping back when the door opened. A man stood, wearing nothing but faded jeans and a towel around his neck. Steel-gray eyes flicked to Noah’s gun, then back up.
“Can I help you?” he asked calmly, but his fists gripped the ends of his towel.
I’m not available, she’d said. Now Noah saw why. People called Jack handsome. Jack had nothin’ on this guy, he thought bitterly. “Who are you? How did you get in?”
The man’s perfect jaw clenched. “I’m a friend of the woman who lives here.”
I’ll just bet you are. “Do us both a favor and don’t move.” Noah took another step back, not taking his eyes from the man. “Eve,” he called loudly. “Come up, please.”
She took the stairs at a fast jog, then paused when she reached her landing. “Oh my God. David?” She flew past Noah, throwing her arms around Mr. Perfect, who spun her around. When he set her on her feet, it was like Noah wasn’t there.
“Let me look at you,” David said and tipped her chin up. “Wow. You look good, kid. Really good. You can barely see…” He trailed off when her smile dimmed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I had a hell of a plastic surgeon.” Her smile returned. “Why are you here?”
“And how did you get in?” Noah repeated carefully.
Eve frowned up at David. “Yeah. How did you get in?”
David frowned back. “You left your door unlocked. Again.”
She shook her head, her face gone pale. “No. I didn’t. I don’t do that anymore. Ever.”
“It was open when I got here. You have to be more careful, Evie.”
“You did leave in a hurry,” Noah said quietly.
“But I always lock my door. Oh my God. My computer-”
“Is still here,” David said calmly and Eve drew a deep breath of relief.
“So what are you doing here?” Noah asked.
David lifted his brows. “Fixing her roof. Who are you again?”
“This is Detective Webster,” she said, still anxious. “Detective, this is my old friend from Chicago, David Hunter.”
Noah shook his hand, even though he didn’t want to. “You came all the way from Chicago to fix her roof?” he asked, annoyed that he sounded so… annoyed.
“She left me a message asking how she could do it herself. I had a few days off and didn’t want her climbing the roof. Look, I’m freezing. Why don’t you come in?”
“It’s okay. I’ve got to get back. Can I talk to Eve for a minute, privately?” He waited until the door was closed. “Does he come often to do home repairs?”
“He’s never visited before.” Eve looked at her door thoughtfully. “I think there’s more to it, but I’ll take a fixed roof for now. It’s been a long day. Go home. I’m fine here.”
He could see that. “You have my cell. And if you go back into Shadowland-”
“Greer will not approach the avatar that was talking to Christy’s Gwenivere last night, and I will call you right away. Nor will I make any dates with avatars. I got it. I’m fine.”
“All right.” He was halfway to street level when she called his name. She looked over the rail, her dark eyes now troubled.
“I’m not with David. It changes nothing, but I didn’t want you to think I’d lied to you.”
He nodded hard. “I’ll be in touch. Lock your door.”
Monday, February 22, 10:20 p.m.
David was on her land line when she got back. “A cop brought her home.” He gave her a stern look. “It’s Ethan.”
She winced. “Ooh. I forgot to call him back.”
“Yeah. You did.” He handed her the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”
“Do you know how worried I’ve been?” Ethan’s words were thundered in a whisper. Which meant he still hadn’t told Dana. At least there was that.
“I’m sorry. Ethan, I just finished with the police and I haven’t eaten all day. Can I call you in a little while? I’m going to need some advice on hacking anyway.”
Ethan’s sigh was weary. “Call my cell, not the house phone. All the kids are in bed.”
David was buttoning his shirt when she hung up, his eyes narrowed. “I’ll make you dinner while you tell me what the hell is going on.”
The sight of David in a kitchen brought back memories. “You used to cook for me.”
He stilled, then resumed his search of her fridge. “While we waited for Dana to come home from the bus station,” he said quietly.
Eve’s guardian had picked up many a terrified woman from the bus station in the middle of the night, risking the ire of the abusive husbands that had driven them to flee. David had worried about Dana all the time, but that hadn’t stopped him from supporting her efforts. Anything that needed doing around their shelter, David had attended to.
He’d been in love with Dana. Probably still was. To Eve’s knowledge he’d never said a word. And then Ethan had come along and Dana had fallen like a rock. It had to be hard for David, watching Dana’s family grow.
He set peppers and onions on a cutting board. “Where are your knives?”
“On that top shelf in the lockbox. Key’s taped to the bottom of the box.”
He looked over his shoulder, concerned. “You still dreaming?”
She shrugged, not wanting to talk about that. “Now and then. How did you know to call Ethan?”
“I was scared shitless. I did a redial on your phone and who should answer but Ethan, totally frantic. You were sitting in a police car and some woman was dead.”
“I should have called him.”
“Yeah, you should have. But I guess you were a little busy.”
Eve watched David dice vegetables faster than a chef. “Why are you here? Really?”
“Dana used to climb on the roof. I didn’t want you doing the same and breaking your fool neck. I dumped all the water out of your pots, by the way. They were overflowing.”
“Thanks. For emptying my pots and for dropping everything to come out and help me. But a phone call would have sufficed. I probably wouldn’t have gone on the roof.”
“I had a few days off. Thought I’d get away. I’ll start patching tomorrow.”
Her eyes fell on the calendar on her fridge, with the big circle around Thursday. “Dana’s baby shower is Thursday night,” she said quietly. “At your mom’s house.”
His wide shoulders sagged and she knew she was right. Dana’s family and David’s were close. Major holidays and special occasions were spent together. To Eve’s knowledge Dana had no clue how David had felt all these years. It must have been torture for him.
“So,” she said briskly, “what do you know about a game called Shadowland?”
He slid the vegetables into a skillet. “Sometimes you wanna go where no one knows your name,” he said, then turned to her with a grin that didn’t reach his eyes.
She was genuinely shocked. “You play?”
“Here and there, between calls at the firehouse. It passes the time.”
“Well then, David, dear, do I have a story for you.”
Monday, February 22, 10:45 p.m.
Micki and Jack were in Abbott’s office when Noah got back. Jack and Micki were reviewing case notes and Abbott was absorbed in his computer screen. “What’s with Abbott?”
“He’s playing the game,” Jack said. “Shadowland sucked him in.”
“I am not sucked in,” Abbott retorted. “I am investigating Ninth Circle.”
On Abbott’s screen a male avatar mingled. “That’s you?” Noah asked
“It is. I’ll never attract a looker like Eve’s Greer, although that’s probably for the best. My wife wouldn’t like that too much.”
“Where did you get the avatar?” Noah asked.
“Bought it from Pandora’s website in the game.”
Noah blinked. “You? I thought you were clueless.”
“I wanted Eve to think so. But everything she told us was spot on. Our killer doesn’t have to have a lot of technical know-how. It is an amazing place, though.”
Shaking his head, Noah went back to the table. “That’s too weird,” he murmured.
“I know,” Micki whispered. “I think he’s been playing dumb all these years, making me explain things. I’ve got his number now.”
“I can hear well, too,” Abbott called and Micki rolled her eyes.
“What do we know?” Noah asked.
“We found the snake,” Jack said with a grimace. “What was left of it.”
“Timber rattler,” Micki said. “Outside in the snow. The head had been shot off.”
“I thought the timber rattler was endangered,” Noah said.
“It’s threatened,” Micki said. “Rarely found this time of year. They hibernate in the wild. I’m thinking this was likely a specimen. We’re making calls to the zoos and universities. So far nobody’s missing one, but hopefully we’ll be able to track it down.”
“But why?” Noah pressed. “Everything else was the same, except the snake bite.”
“Because he’s fucking nuts?” Jack asked.
“Fucking nuts and knows forensics,” Micki said. “So far no prints, hairs, nothing.”
The phone rang and the three of them went silent when Abbott picked up.
“Olivia,” he said, then sighed as he listened. “They got the Siren Song employee list,” he said when he hung up. “Cassandra Lee was cooperative when she heard the news.”
Noah sighed. “Christy and Samantha weren’t on the list, were they?”
“No. Web, get the list of participants in Eve’s study and figure out how Samantha Altman links. Micki, do we have anything from Martha’s hard drive?”
“Not yet,” she admitted. “Whoever wiped it, did good. It’s like she never used it.”
Noah went still. “Mick, do you have those photos of Martha’s messy apartment?”
“In my folder.” Micki spread the photos on the table.
“Dammit. She had two monitors on her desk before,” Noah said, tapping one of the photos. “We only found one. And her computer in the picture is high end. We took a cheap one. I wondered why a consultant would have such a cheap PC.”
Micki scowled. “I’ve wasted time searching the hard drive of a decoy computer.”
“This guy is very good,” Jack said thoughtfully. “Very smart.”
“He took Martha’s computer because he knew we’d find evidence of Shadowland on her hard drive and in her Internet cache,” Micki said. “We’d be able to follow her movements and maybe even who she talked to in the World.”
Abbott looked grim. “Then it’s important. We need access to Martha’s and Christy’s game files. Someone altered their avatars. We find out who, we find our man.”
“You want to hack or ask to be admitted through the front door?” she asked.
“Front door,” Abbott said. “Jack, kick up the search for the panty pervert, Taylor Kobrecki. Right now he’s the closest thing we have to a suspect. Noah, get a list of Eve’s test subjects and everyone meet back here at 8:00 a.m.”
Monday, February 22, 11:15 p.m.
“You can go home, you know,” Eve said to Callie, who’d arrived with Eve’s keys shortly after Noah Webster had departed. “David’s back from the corner store.”
“Yes, he is.” Callie watched David whipping a cream sauce with a wire whisk. “I’m hoping when he finishes dinner he does something that makes him hot and sweaty.”
Eve sighed. Women everywhere had the same reaction to David. She might have, too, had they met under different circumstances. Instead David had been a man she’d learned to trust when her world had been a very dark and scary place.
“Leave him alone. I want my dinner.”
“Fine. So why did he just bring you two disposable cell phones?”
“He was going out for heavy cream for his sauce anyway. Mine had curdled.”
“Don’t be a smartass. I got you a lawyer. The least you can do is give me a hint.”
“I appreciate you sending Matt, and he did a great job, but I don’t want to put you in a bad position. The less you know, the better for you. Just go home. Please?”
“You’re not making me feel better and I’m not going home. At least let me help.”
“You didn’t cause this, Cal. You shouldn’t have to be involved.”
“You didn’t cause this either. You didn’t force these women to play your game.”
Eve thought of Christy Lewis, who’d never heard of role play games before she’d seen their ad for test subjects in the local paper. “Yeah, Cal, I kind of did.”
“Good God. Who taught you to shoulder the burden of every person you meet?”
“I know who,” David said dryly from the kitchen. “You can’t fight it, Callie. It was hardwired into her by one of the best.”
“Thank you,” Eve said, touched, and he smiled back, but his eyes were troubled.
“Callie’s right, Evie. None of this is your fault. Let the police do their jobs.”
“I am. Mostly.” She toggled her laptop screen to Ninth Circle. “He could be there, hunting his next victim. I can’t just stand by. I have to do something.”
David shook his head helplessly. “God, it’s like a Dana echo in here.”
“Thank you,” she said again and he scowled.
“That wasn’t a compliment,” he said. “So what are you doing that you shouldn’t be?”
“Reading blogs of ShadowCo people. You can learn a lot from employee blog rants.”
“What do you want to learn from ShadowCo’s angry employees?” Callie asked.
“I want a contact in the company. So I can hack in.”
Callie nodded. “That’s what I expected you to do. Can I watch?”
Eve laughed. “Sure. If I’m lucky this marketing guy who ranted about his boss, who works him like a slave, will still be in the office.”
“At this time of night?” David asked.
“If it’s anything like law firms,” Callie said, “people will work until midnight.”
“Besides, they’re in Seattle,” Eve added. “This blog is from a marketing genius who included his title and phone number at the end of his rant about the multi-million-dollar bonus given to ShadowCo’s CEO.”
“I don’t know why people are so stupid as to blog about their bosses,” Callie said. “Anyone in the world can see it once it posts. Idiots.”
“Well, this idiot’s name is Clayton Johnson.” Using the disposable cell, Eve dialed.
The phone rang six times. “Johnson,” he said, clipped and annoyed. Perfect.
“Mr. Johnson,” Eve said, “my name is Gillian Townsend. I’m with Attenborough IT Services. We’re contracted to support your company network systems.”
“So?” Johnson asked impatiently. “I don’t have time-”
Eve broke in before he could hang up. “We’re doing server maintenance and I can see you’re still logged in. In a few minutes, we’ll be shutting down your server.”
“No,” he said angrily. “I have a report to finish and I need-”
“It’s all right, sir. We’re shutting down your server and immediately starting up the backup. I can validate your account on my end so that you won’t have any down time.”
“Oh.” He sounded mollified. “Well, all right.”
“What’s your user name and password, please?” She looked up to find Callie staring at her like she’d grown two heads. David just looked resigned.
“JohnsonCL and sonicsrule, all one word,” Johnson said.
Eve smiled. “Thank you. You won’t see even a blip in your service. Be sure to change your password first thing in the morning, okay?”
“My pleasure. Have a good evening.” Eve hung up. “That’s how it’s done.”
Callie looked stunned. “You lied to that man.”
“Yes I did. And he gave a complete stranger his password and user name.”
“You lied to that man,” Callie repeated. “With the cell phone David bought you.”
“Why do you think she wanted an untraceable phone?” David asked. “But, Evie, that Johnson guy was just an innocent bystander. You could get him fired.”
“That’s why I told him to change his password. If he does, he’ll appear like he was security-conscious. Don’t worry. Once this is over, I’ll tell Ethan and he can pay a sales call to ShadowCo and show them the huge holes in their network security.”
David blinked. “This is what Ethan does for a living?”
“Sometimes. I used to hack for him part-time when I lived in Chicago. It’s a good way to get his consulting foot in the door. A company’s biggest vulnerability is often its people. Ethan shows them the security hole and offers to patch it up.”
“That’s…” David shook his head. “That’s dishonest.”
“It would be if he used their servers for personal gain. He doesn’t. He’s a white hat.”
Callie’s lips twitched. “A white hat?”
Eve nodded. “That’s what they’re called, I swear. As opposed to black hats who hack in with malicious intent. If a business tells Ethan they don’t want his services, he tells them where the hole was anyway. Most likely a high school kid’s already found it.”
“Don’t these companies get mad that you hacked?” Callie asked.
“Usually they want the hole patched before the big cheese finds out. In the end, everybody wins. How would you like it if your bank’s server had a security hole?”
“They wouldn’t,” David declared, then his features shifted uneasily. “Do they?”
“Remember when Ethan and Dana put the downpayment on the house for all their fosters? That downpayment was a retainer from your bank, buddy. Some hacker had already breached their system. They said they wished Ethan had breached it first.”
“It’s still dishonest,” he grumbled, but without heat. He brought her a plate of pasta and cream sauce, then perched on the arm of her chair. “So you’re in?”
“Not yet. Johnson was a little fish. As a marketing guy, his access rights are diddly. I need to elevate my privileges so that I can get into the client files. That’ll take time.”
“Why didn’t you start with somebody with better access?” David asked.
“Like an IT person? Because they probably would have called the cops on me.”
“Will you call anybody else?” Callie asked, fascinated.
“Not tonight. I’m going to run exploits until I find another, better hole.”
“English,” David murmured.
“Exploits are codes, scripts hackers use to find security holes. Hackers see network security as one big Rubik’s Cube. It’s there to be breached, a puzzle to be solved.”
“Like mountain climbers scale Everest because it’s there,” Callie said.
“Absolutely. They create code that basically knocks on the walls of network security until it finds a loose brick. Knock the loose brick through and you’re in.”
“It’s part of the game,” David said. “Hackers make holes, businesses patch them.”
Eve smiled at him. “Kind of like roofs. Some hackers look for loose bricks for nefarious reasons, like they want credit card info. But some do it just because it’s there. They share their code because it gives them status. Hopefully one of these scripts will find a ShadowCo hole. Then I can get into Martha and Christy’s files and check their movements, who they talked to, and importantly, how their avatars were altered.”
“And then you’ll hand it over to Detective Webster,” David said.
“I promise. It’ll take the cops days to get a warrant for ShadowCo files. I can access them in a day. Then they stop the killer and I don’t have any more deaths on my conscience.” She set the scripts to run, toggled back to Ninth Circle, and dug into her pasta. “And don’t tell me they’re not on my head. Because they are.”
Neither of them corrected her, either because they knew she wouldn’t listen or because they knew she was right. Eve patted Callie’s arm. “Go home. David’s here and I’ll be fine.”
“You won’t leave her?” Callie asked. “Because even if she’s not worried about that psycho coming after her, I am.”
“I’ll sleep on the sofa. If I can sleep on that ratty couch in the firehouse, I can sleep anywhere. Come on, Callie. It’s late. I’ll fix you a plate and walk you down to your car.”
They were gone and it was quiet. Except for the dripping. She turned up the volume of the Ninth Circle band. It was the lesser of two evils, but just barely.
She searched the bar once again for the handsome avatar, then turned to her list of red-zones. There were still five, three of which were women. Rachel Ward, Natalie Clooney, and Kathy Kirk. She knew them only by their avatars-Rachel’s cabaret dancer, Natalie’s poker queen, and Kathy’s real estate mogul.
Who they were in real life Eve didn’t yet know. That was about to change. But first she wanted to be sure they were still present. She spotted Kathy’s avatar on her bar stool, negotiating a land deal. Natalie’s hung at the casino, as did Rachel’s on the nights she was dancing. But on Mondays, Rachel hung at Ninth Circle with everyone else.
Eve was looking for Rachel, when a sharp knock startled her. She set her laptop aside and got up to let David back in. “Remind me to make you a key.”
The words were out before the man on her welcome mat registered in her mind.
Noah Webster’s face was shadowed by his hat brim, but she could see the wry humor in his eyes. “I’m flattered,” he said. “But it’s a little soon for that, don’t you think?”
A disturbing little thrill raced down her spine. “I… I thought you were my friend.”
“Now I’m hurt,” he said mildly. “I haven’t even told you why I’m here.”
“I didn’t mean…” Flustered, she looked down at her feet, got her composure, then looked back up to find him staring in that unsettling way of his. “Come in.”
Webster slipped his hat from his head in a gesture she found endearing. “I saw your friend downstairs. He was looking under the hood of Callie’s car. It wouldn’t start.”
“Callie drives a bigger hunk of junk than I do. David will find the problem.”
Webster’s dark brows knitted slightly. “So your friend fixes cars and roofs?”
“David does a little bit of everything,” she said. “He’s a fireman, too. And he cooks.”
“All that,” Webster said sourly and she had to chuckle.
“I’ve never met a woman who could resist him,” she said lightly.
“Except you?” he said, too seriously, and something twisted in her stomach.
“Except me.” David had earned her trust. But to fall for a man on the basis of his pleasing face? Never again. She required actions before she trusted a man now. But she’d trusted Webster, almost at first sight. To deny it would be an outright lie.
And Noah Webster had a very pleasing face. It was a bothersome admission.
“What brings you back, Detective?”
His eyes left hers and too late she remembered she’d left the disposable phone out in plain sight. He walked to her chair, picked it up. “Untraceable cell phone?”
“It’s not a crime to own a prepaid phone,” she said blandly, but she tensed. A bit.
“No, it’s not. But, hypothetically speaking, if you learned anything, you’d tell me?”
“You’d be the first call I made. Hypothetically speaking.”
“Of course.” He looked at her laptop. “Did you see the guy who talked to Christy?”
“Not yet. I’ve been checking off and on since I got home.” She didn’t want him looking too closely at her screen. “Have a seat, Detective. I’ll put coffee on.”
But again, it was too late. “Who is this, Eve?” He pointed at the panel in the top left of her screen, the one that showed her active avatar. “Did Greer take the night off?”
She’d indeed given Greer the night off, resurrecting an avatar she hadn’t used in a very long time. “I needed to get her appropriate clothing. Didn’t want her to catch cold.”
He sat in her chair, pulled her computer to his lap. “And here I thought you’d created a new avatar so that you could approach this dancer without breaking your word to me.”
Eve sat on the sofa. “I’m not that clever.”
He didn’t smile. “Uh-huh. So who is this new face of Eve?”
Eve took her computer, set it aside. “What happened? Why did you come back?”
He glared at her laptop, eyes flashing with annoyance. “I need your participant list.”
“I expected you’d ask once Matt Nillson was gone. He’d have a cow, you know.”
“I won’t say where I got it. I promise.”
“I’d planned to bring it to you tomorrow anyway. Wait here. I’ll be back.”
Noah watched her head to her bedroom, laptop under her arm, then checked the phone. Her only call was to a 206 area code, same as ShadowCo. He knew this because he’d looked it up for his warrant request.
Eve was planning to hack into Shadowland, if she hadn’t done so already. In her place I’d do the same. He put the phone back and considered her computer.
He’d caught a look at her new avatar. Dark, sleek, and dangerous-of a different style than her other designs, although the face had been disturbingly familiar. He knew he’d looked at a much younger Eve, before she’d met the man who’d left her for dead.
The new avatar’s name was Nemesis. Noah knew Eve well enough by now to know that meant something. On his own cell, he did a quick Internet search. Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution. Eve was planning to kick some virtual ass. That shouldn’t arouse him, but he’d be lying if he denied it did.
Eve reappeared, a stack of papers in one hand. “It took a few minutes to print.”
He took the stack. “How many people are in this study, anyway?”
“Five hundred, but you don’t have to check them all.” She leaned close to point at a page, but didn’t touch him. He thought of how she’d thrown her arms around Hunter and felt a tug of jealousy. It was irrational, and embarrassing, but it was there.
“We have three groups,” she was saying. “Group C is the one you want to focus on.”
“They’re in Shadowland.”
“Where they do self-esteem exercises. They’re broken into three subgroups-those who never played until this study, who played a few hours a month, and who played a few hours a week. They fill out diaries with their usage, but I can check their online time. The heavy users almost always lie, understating their usage.”
“Actually she was honest about her habits.” She pointed. “These are the top users.”
“Martha and Christy are still on the list,” he noted.
“I’m not supposed to know I should take them off,” she said quietly. “And that sucks.”
There was guilt in her tone and Noah wanted to alleviate it if he could. “When would they have been missed from the study? If you hadn’t been keeping track?”
“In a few weeks, when they had to come back for their personality evals.”
“Then you did good.” He met her eyes. “You couldn’t have stopped these murders. But you might have saved his next victim by doing everything you’ve done. Don’t let your guilt overshadow your contribution.” He smiled. “No pun intended.”
“Thank you. That helps a lot more than being told it’s not my fault.”
He held her eyes a moment longer before she looked away, but in that moment he saw an unguarded loneliness that squeezed at his heart. Trina’s words came back to hit him like a ton of bricks. You don’t deserve to be alone forever. And he finally admitted he didn’t want to be. That he’d give anything to have somebody again.
“One more question. You want people to have meaningful lives in the real world.”
Her glance up was nervous, fleeting. “Yes, so?”
“So, what good is living in the real world if you have to live alone, unavailable?”
She flinched and he knew he’d overstepped, but didn’t care. She walked to her front door and opened it wide, not looking at him. “Call me if you need anything else.”
He stood looking at her for a few seconds before walking through the door. It closed sharply behind him and he heard the click of her deadbolt. With a sigh he walked down a flight of stairs, only to find David Hunter sitting on one of the steps, looking very cold.
“Is everything all right?”
Hunter stood. “I figured you two needed to talk about whatever happened tonight.”
Noah narrowed his eyes. “She didn’t tell you?”
“She witnessed a crime and gave her statement. Why? Is Evie in trouble?”
“No, she’s not.” Noah walked down another flight before he turned and looked back up. Hunter was watching him, his expression purposefully bland.
“Is everything all right, Detective?” Hunter asked cordially.
“No.” Noah studied Hunter’s near-perfect face. “You knew her, in Chicago.”
“Yes.” The single word was clipped and laced with warning.
“I read about what happened to her four years ago, with that kidnapping and the boy she saved. And what happened two years before that.”
Hunter’s jaw had tightened. “Is there a question in there, Detective?”
Yes, but he’d be damned if he knew what it was. “She has a disposable cell phone in her apartment,” he said and Hunter’s expression smoothed.
“I know. I bought it tonight. I left the charger for my cell back in Chicago and my phone is dead. The prepaid will keep me going until I get home.”
The man’s gray eyes didn’t flicker an iota as he lied. “Look, I know Eve’s going to hack into Shadowland’s system. When she does, can you make sure she calls me?”
Hunter’s lips thinned. “Why, so you can cuff her again?”
“I didn’t do that, and I uncuffed her as soon as I got there. I want her to call me because she doesn’t think she’s in danger. I won’t take the chance that she’s wrong.”
Now Hunter’s eyes flickered, but with worry. “I’ll make sure she calls you.”
“Thanks.” Noah hesitated. “Why did you really come, Hunter?”
“To fix her roof. Evie’s like my kid sister. There’s not a lot I wouldn’t do for her.”
A sense of relief loosened the knots in his gut. “Thanks. See you around.”
“Detective,” Hunter called after him, “weren’t you wearing a hat when you got here?”
Noah nodded. “I thought I’d come back for it tomorrow.”
Hunter hesitated. “Don’t hurt her,” he said quietly. “She’s been through enough.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Eve let David back in, still feeling unsettled. Angry. She’d tried to be honest but kind to Noah, but he did not respect boundaries. She locked her deadbolt, her frown deepening. “I know I locked my door this afternoon. I can picture it in my mind.”
“You were rattled,” David said. “You still are.”
“Of course I am,” she said irritably. “Two women I recruited to my study are dead.”
He studied her face shrewdly. “And Noah Webster cares for you.”
Eve sighed. “I know. I wish he didn’t. I tried to tell him to go away.”
“Now why would you do a foolish thing like that, Evie?” David asked gently.
“Not gonna happen.” She sat in her chair and grabbed her pasta, now cold.
“Which? You and Webster or you and me talking about you and Webster?”
So what good is it to live in the real world all alone? “Yes. Either. Both.”
He shrugged. “All right. Any of your scripts finding loose bricks in ShadowCo?”
She opened her laptop. “Not yet.”
“Then I’ll make coffee. I guess it’s going to be a long night.” He puttered in the kitchen, then returned holding two cups, and it was then she noticed what looked like a walkie-talkie hanging from his belt. A baby pink walkie-talkie.
“What the hell is that?” she demanded when he put a steaming mug in her hand.
He lifted a dark brow. “Coffee.”
She rolled her eyes. “No, that. What the hell is that?” She pointed to the device.
“Oh, this.” He unclipped it from his belt and turned it toward her, showing her a small screen that was murky and dark. “Baby monitor. This is the receiver.”
He put the receiver on her lamp table, then sat on her old sofa and pulled his laptop from a backpack as if nothing was strange about a grown man having a pink baby monitor when there were no babies in the house. And never would be.
“Why? And where did you get it?”
“It was going to be Dana’s baby shower gift. I’ve had it in my truck for a week.”
Eve studied the receiver, fascinated. “Where’s the camera?”
“It comes with two. One is above your front door and one is outside the building door, downstairs. Wireless, range is almost four hundred feet. Infrared night-vision.”
“Freaking cool. When did you install it?”
“One after I walked Callie to her car and the other just now, after Webster left. I activated the receiver while the coffee brewed. It’s not rocket science.”
“What did Webster say to you?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.
“What I already knew. That you don’t think you’re in danger, but he thinks you are.” He took a sip of his coffee, his eyes not leaving hers. “And that he’s interested in you.”
Briefly Eve closed her eyes. “David, please.” He made no apology and she sighed, turning her focus back to the camera. “If I were in danger and some killer did come after me, a baby pink camera would tip him off, don’t you think?” she said and he frowned.
“Give me some credit, Evie. I put the one downstairs where it couldn’t be seen. And if he comes close enough to take the camera out, we’d get his face.” He connected a video cord from his laptop to the receiver. “We’ve got streaming video and an alarm that screeches if either camera is disconnected. Gotta love it.”
“On a baby monitor? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“All for under three hundred bucks. Technology meets parental paranoia,” he said, then shrugged. “And my paranoia, too. I thought it would give Dana a little peace of mind to have the cameras versus the old audio monitor. She has all those foster kids, coming and going. Most are good kids, but all it would take would be one bad one.”
Eve’s throat tightened. He still loves her. What a waste of a life. Of a good heart. “Amazingly thoughtful,” she said roughly. “A little used by the time she gets it, but…”
He didn’t smile. “I’ll get her another. Tomorrow I’ll install something less noticeable for you than a baby pink camera, but it’ll work for tonight. A woman living alone should be careful. A woman living alone who’s tied to two dead women should be terrified.”
Alone pierced like an arrow so that she almost didn’t hear the rest. “I have a gun.”
“Then give it to me. If anyone comes through your door tonight, I want to be ready.”
A chill chased over her skin. “You’re serious.”
“About your safety? Deadly serious. Now drink your coffee before it gets cold.”
Tuesday, February 23, 12:35 a.m.
Noah quietly let himself into his house, considering the way he’d left Eve, and the fine line between pursuit and harassment. He didn’t want to cause her pain, stress, grief, any of those bad things. Just yesterday he’d been all set to protect her from himself. But she’d said she didn’t want to be protected. He wanted to believe her.
She’d said she was broken. That he didn’t want to believe, but understood. He sat down on the edge of his bed. Out of habit he picked up the photo he’d held so many times and remembered how broken he’d felt when he lost Susan and the baby.
He thought about how he’d handled his grief, compared it to how Eve had coped. They really weren’t that different. They’d both hidden, escaping reality, Noah into the bottle, Eve into the virtual world. They’d both set themselves free.
And for what? To work. To protect the innocent. He thought of Eve’s Nemesis avatar. He put the picture back, and got ready for bed, wondering how Eve punished the guilty in her world. She’d told him that some of her red-zone cases had relationships in Shadowland that spanned from the casual one-night stand to marriages.
His knee-jerk reaction was to wonder what possible satisfaction a man could have in a pretend relationship. Then he considered the relationships he’d had over the years. They’d been cordial, but empty, and when they were over, he’d walked away as had the woman, whichever woman it had been at the time. He’d missed the sex and the occasional benefit of sharing a meal, but other than that, there’d been nothing.
Pretend relationships were a relative thing.
And now, sitting in his silent house, on the edge of his empty bed, he understood the lure of a virtual relationship. If one was lonely, sometimes a conversation could mean more than a quick roll across the sheets. He smiled grimly. Well, at least as much.
He stretched out in his empty bed, but again, sleep would not come. He tossed and turned. And when he finally did fall asleep, he dreamed again, this time of Eve in an ambulance, while paramedics brought her back from death with the paddles.
His eyes opened and he stared at his ceiling. That wasn’t a dream. He’d read it online in a newspaper archive. She’d died twice on the way to the hospital after having been discovered by her guardian, Dana Dupinsky, who saved her life.
Greer the Guardian. The name took on new meaning. Eve’s real-life guardian had protected battered women and in working with her, so had Eve. Now she protected the subjects in her study who were being stalked by a man they thought was fantasy.
Noah’s sigh echoed off the walls of his empty room. He’d been given the role of guardian and protector once, so long ago now. He’d failed his family, abysmally.
And now you’re alone. He did, however, have purpose. He had a badge. He’d catch this killer, then he’d do the paperwork and move on to the next homicide.
A depressing future. He’d been sober for ten years, but at this moment wanted a drink so badly he could taste it. He rolled over, grabbed his phone, hesitated.
I hurt Brock last night. He couldn’t do that again. Wouldn’t.
The phone in his hand rang, startling him. It was Brock. “What’s wrong?” Noah asked.
“Nothing. I, uh, didn’t see you at Sal’s tonight and I got worried.”
“I’m working a case. Besides, I said I wasn’t going back,” Noah added, annoyed.
“Well, forgive me if I doubted you really meant it this time,” Brock flung back. “Eve wasn’t behind the bar tonight. Sal said she had an emergency.”
Subtlety had never been Brock’s strong suit. “I know. She was with me.”
“That’s good then,” Brock said cautiously. “Isn’t it?”
Noah’s temper flared. “No. She’s got a goddamn target on her head. And she wasn’t with me. In fact she told me she wasn’t with anyone, including me.”
“Ouch. You need another bout in the ring?”
Noah thought of the harm he’d wreaked the night before. “No, but can you meet me for coffee? I need to get out of my house.” Out of this empty shell of a house.
“Of course,” Brock said. “Usual place?”
“Yeah. In a half hour?”
Tuesday, February 23, 2:00 a.m.
That Hunter guy was still there. Sipping coffee in the frozen seat of his SUV, he glared at the red pickup truck with Illinois plates from a block away. They’d turned out the lights in the living room. It appeared David Hunter was staying the night. No matter. It would be easier to shoot him in bed anyway.
Webster had come, then gone again. What did Eve tell him? What did she know?
It doesn’t matter, he told himself. Even if she knows about Shadowland, she can’t know about me. Still, the clock inside his mind was ticking. He needed to move.
But carefully. Hunter had hidden something behind the bush next to the door to Eve’s building. Let’s see what it was, shall we?
He approached from the side of the building, grimacing when snow went in his shoes, wet and freezing. Another pair of shoes, ruined. He came up on the bush, his head down, the lapels of his coat pulled around his face.
Whatever it was, it was pink. He picked it up then furiously turned it lens down, grateful he hadn’t approached from the front. Stay calm. The camera had not captured his face, only his thumb as he’d grasped it. And he was wearing gloves. It’s all right.
He placed the camera in the snow and ground it under the sole of his shoe. What the hell kind of surveillance camera comes in pink?
He’d put his hand on the downstairs building door when he heard something inside. Footsteps, muted murmurs. Someone was coming. Hunter and Eve. So? Kill them.
Finger on the trigger, he retreated to the shadows, waiting for them to emerge. But they did not. He crept as close as he dared. Through the door’s leaded-glass side panels he could hear arguing in loud whispers, but he could see no one.
“Call 911.” It was Hunter. “Just do it. For God’s sake.”
“Okay, okay, I’m dialing, but don’t go out there. David. No.”
“I thought you said it was just a dog,” Hunter hissed. “Stand back and let go.”
“Maybe it is. If it’s not, I don’t want you hurt. Hello? We may have an intruder outside.” She gave the address. “Yes, I’ll stay on the line… No, we won’t go outside.”
“Give me your phone and take mine,” Hunter demanded. “Call Webster and tell him to get his ass over here. I’ll hold with 911.”
He couldn’t see them unless he stood straight in front of the leaded glass, where he could be seen as well. If they took even a few steps toward the stairs, they’d be in range. Just shoot the glass, break the window, then you can see.
And wake the neighborhood? That would be the best way to get caught. The police were on their way. Dammit. He was running away for the second time tonight. Hating Hunter, he crept back the way he’d come, destroying his footprints as he did so.
Unfortunately, now Eve would be watched all the time. Protected. He had to lure her away. Climbing into his SUV, he was two blocks away when he saw the cruiser in his rearview. He gripped his steering wheel and twisted viciously. It should have been Eve’s throat in his hands.
He jammed one hand into his coat pocket and felt the syringe that had been meant for Eve. His mind was racing. He’d been all primed. Ready. I’ll never sleep tonight. Just one. One to take off the edge.
He turned the SUV toward the city. He knew where to find what he wanted.
Tuesday, February 23, 2:25 a.m.
Noah received Eve’s call as he and Brock had finally gotten around to the topic he’d really wanted to discuss. Eve. He’d sent Brock back to Trina and a warm bed and with a combination of dread and anticipation, he’d come back here. Again. For the third time in one night.
Noah looked up at the pink camera over her door. There would be an interesting story to that. The door was opened by the officer who’d responded to the 911. Eve was sitting in her chair, arms around her knees. She met his eyes with weary resignation.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “David made me call.”
Hunter was on the sofa, arms crossed tightly over his chest. “Damn straight I did.”
“Who put up the pink camera?” Noah asked.
“I did,” Hunter said grimly.
“Why are you here, Detective?” the older officer said. “This isn’t a homicide.”
Noah flicked a glance at Eve. “It’s personal. Did you find evidence of an intruder?”
“Somebody was out there,” the younger cop said. “Footprints were wiped out. One of the other cameras was pushed into the mud. Should we go door to door?”
“CSU will check the perimeter at first light. We may do door to door then. Send me a copy of your report.” The cops left and Noah closed the door. “What happened?”
Hunter told the story while Noah examined the pink video receiver.
“The system triggers an alarm,” Hunter finished, “if the camera loses a signal. When the guy ground it into the mud, the alarm woke me up.” He hesitated. “Eve has a registered gun. She’d given it to me. I started down the stairs, but she followed.”
“It’s my apartment,” Eve said stubbornly. “My problem and my goddamned gun.”
Hunter shook his head. “And that’s it. We didn’t hear him or see him.”
Noah met Hunter’s grim eyes. “Good thinking. And fast action.”
Hunter shook his head again. “I should have gone out after him.”
Noah watched Eve roll her eyes, but she said nothing. “We don’t know if this guy is armed,” Noah said. “We’ve got three dead. We can’t be taking chances.”
“Told you so,” Eve muttered.
Hunter made an annoyed sound in his throat. “Now what?”
“Now we watch Eve like a hawk,” Noah said. “Eve, you don’t go anywhere by yourself until we know exactly who and what we’re dealing with.”
“Told you so,” Hunter muttered and Noah knew a small moment of relief. If nothing else, these two behaved like brother and sister.
She rose, briskly. “David made coffee. Do you want some to go?”
He realized for her, none of this had changed anything personal. “No thanks. I’ve had enough coffee tonight. Don’t go anywhere alone.”
“She won’t,” Hunter said flatly, then softened his tone. “Thank you for coming.”
“Yes,” Eve said, not meeting Noah’s eyes. “Thank you. I’m tired. David, can you see Detective Webster out?” Without waiting for an answer she went back to her room.
Hunter puffed out his cheeks. “Well.”
Noah frowned. “Well? Well what? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re under her skin.” He walked him to the door. “Give her time.”
“I have lots of that,” Noah murmured, then narrowed his eyes. “Why pink?”
“It was a baby shower present. Do you know a Detective Sutherland?”
Noah was surprised at the sudden topic change. “Olivia? Damn fine cop. Why?”
“Her sister Mia’s one of my best friends,” he said. “Another damn fine cop. Olivia and I were both in Mia’s wedding. When you see her, tell her I said hi.”
“I will. And, I meant it. That was good thinking. You may have saved Eve’s life.”
Hunter’s eyes hardened. “This guy knows Eve’s involved. How does he know?”
“I was wondering the same thing,” Noah said grimly. “Keep me on speed dial.”
“I will. Don’t forget your hat.”
“I’ll leave it here for a while.” If it was here, he had an excuse to return. “Thanks.”
Tuesday, February 23, 2:25 a.m.
Lindsay never would have wanted her to see this side of humanity. Too late, sis, Liza thought dully, as she waited for a bus to the next neighborhood. She’d been searching for three hours and she was already ready to give up. Most of the prostitutes hung out in bars and hotels this time of year. The bars wouldn’t let her in because she wasn’t twenty-one. And nobody in the hotels had seen Lindsay.
A well-intentioned bouncer had let her into one of the bars long enough to get warm. A waitress gave her a coffee. Neither had seen Lindsay. In her pocket was the napkin on which the bouncer had written directions to another place she might look. She had enough change for bus fare there and bus fare home.
And if you find nothing? Then what?
I don’t know.
Numbly she watched as a girl came out of the bar she’d just left, picking her way over the ice in five-inch stiletto heels. The girl’s legs were bare, her short skirt barely covering her butt, her wig teased big. She pranced to the end of the block and leaned against a light pole. A minute later a black SUV slid to a stop, rolled down its window.
“Don’t do it,” Liza murmured, as if words could help. The girl climbed up into the SUV and it did a U-turn in the street, headed back the way it had come.
Tuesday, February 23, 3:25 a.m.
He drew a deep breath, the climax shuddering through him. Slowly he released the hooker’s throat. He relaxed, lowering his body to sit on the body he straddled, his seed glistening on her skin. Under her wig she’d had short dark hair and a long neck and as he’d choked the life out of her, he’d imagined her face was Eve Wilson’s.
It should be Eve lying here, on this disgusting, foul-smelling bed. Dead, her open eyes staring at nothing at all. It was supposed to have been Eve. But it wasn’t.
But the words he’d whispered in the hooker’s ear as she’d slid into her little ketamine stupor would drive terror into Eve’s heart when she finally lay here beneath him on this bed. Twine around your throat, pulling tighter, you can’t breathe. You’re going to die.
The hooker had awakened, gasping for air, thinking she was being strangled. Then, she really was. He did love it when fantasy met reality with such perfection.
He climbed off the girl, yanked on the concrete slab, and winced. The girl from Sunday wasn’t quite done yet. He stared into the pit for a moment, troubled. Two days. He’d never gone only two days between kills.
He had to be more careful, he thought as he dragged the hooker’s body from the bed, rolling her into the pit. He’d never gone to the same street twice, but he had tonight. It was like he’d been on autopilot as he’d driven away from Eve’s.
It was the stress. When this was over and he was done, he’d go back to his old way. Things would be normal again. He donned his protective gear, performed his duties, tossing the girl’s clothing in after her. When he was finished, he pulled the slab closed and picked up the girl’s cheap stilettos, carefully placing them heel out on the shelf next to Christy Lewis’s very expensive Manolos.
He stood back, surveyed his collection. It was a veritable time capsule of women’s shoe fashions spanning nearly thirty years. Most were, of course, on the most flamboyant fringe of fashion, the shoes no respectable woman would be caught dead wearing. Most were small sizes, as his victims had been. It was a more efficient use of his energy that way. Smaller victims were more easily overpowered. More easily transported. Leaving all his energy for what happened in this room, as it should be.
There were exceptions. His eyes lowered to the bottom shelf, far left. Next to the worn pair of work boots he’d removed from the man who’d dug his pit were a pair of scuffed pumps, black, size eleven. They were plain. Ugly. Matronly, even. They’d been out of style thirty years ago. Which was why they’d been relegated to the church charity bin.
He remembered her digging them from the bin along with the articles of clothing that had been too worn to make decent rags. A few dresses for herself. Trousers for her sons that would be too short for the older, and far too large for the younger. But she didn’t care. Didn’t care that everyone knew every stitch she wore was fished from the charity bin. Didn’t care that her sons were laughingstocks of the entire town.
She’d had no pride. No shame. Nothing but a selfish, unquenchable thirst. He carefully took one of the pumps from the shelf, studied it, remembering. They were scuffed because she’d fallen down all the time.
She’d fallen down all the time because she was drunk. As were the constant stream of paramours she entertained to earn her next bottle. Except a few of them hadn’t been as drunk as she. And a few of them had come with a different price in mind for that next bottle.
His hand clenched into a fist and he abruptly relaxed it. No point in damaging the most valuable of his souvenirs. He remembered the day he’d taken these shoes from her feet, minutes after he’d taken his hands from her throat.
Seconds after he’d taken her miserable life.
He remembered the sight of her swinging from the tree outside the rusted-out trailer she’d had the nerve to call their home. No pride. No shame. Now, no life.
He’d chosen the branch carefully. She’d been a tall woman. That she hadn’t passed those genes to him had often struck her as funny.
He’d laughed about it himself as he’d hoisted her up, left her feet dangling. It had taken more energy than he’d expected, but it had been worth it. Of course tying the noose had been no problem. He’d had months to practice the technique. There hadn’t been much else to do, in juvenile detention. Not much more to do than watch his own back and dream of his hands around her throat.
He’d expected the moral satisfaction, even the thrill as she drew her last breath. What he hadn’t expected was the pure, sexual release. It had caught him off-guard, that first time. He lifted his eyes, surveyed his collection. He’d known to expect it every time that followed.
He looked back at the shoe in his hand. He’d strung her up and left her swinging. No one had questioned that she’d killed herself. Everyone had been relieved that she was finally gone. His only regret was that she’d been dressed in the cast-off Sunday dress she’d pulled from the church charity bin and not like the whore she was. And that he hadn’t had his pit then. He would have enjoyed walking over her any time he chose.
He placed the shoe back on the shelf, straightened it neatly. The next pair of shoes he placed on the shelf would be Rachel Ward’s, victim five of his six, who’d already agreed to meet him tomorrow night. Tonight, he amended.
But the next body into the pit would be Eve’s. Eventually, he’d have her here. She’d be silenced, her worst fear realized. She’d almost died twice. Third time was a charm.
Tuesday, February 23, 4:30 a.m.
Harvey Farmer sat drumming his fingers on his kitchen table when Dell returned, looking cold and tired. “Where have you been?” Harvey snapped.
“Following Jack Phelps, just like we agreed.” There was attitude in his son’s voice that Harvey did not like and he smelled like perfume. Again.
“And what did Phelps do?”
“Went to a bar, then sat outside for a few hours waiting for some guys to come out.”
Harvey’s brows lifted, sniffing a break. “Guys? Really?”
“No, not like that. Phelps is very much into women. He was waiting for these guys to come out so he could write down their license plates. I guess they’re suspects.” Dell dragged his palms down his face. “This plan of yours isn’t working.”
“It will. Be patient.” He jumped when Dell’s hand slammed down on the table.
“I’m done being patient. How long have you followed them, hoping they stumble?”
Harvey cocked his jaw. “Since I put your brother in the ground.”
“And so far? Nothin’.”
“Not nothing. Pages of notes on what they’ve done, who they’ve seen… You’ve been at this three weeks.” Fired by the article that made my son’s murderers look like gods. Harvey had welcomed Dell’s rage. Now he needed to harness it before Dell did something wild. “They’re on a big case. They’ll be under pressure to make an arrest.”
Dell scoffed. “They couldn’t find a crook if they tripped over him.”
“Exactly. When they can’t arrest somebody, they’ll find a scapegoat.”
“Like VJ,” Dell murmured.
“Like VJ,” Harvey repeated. “Here are the pictures I took of Webster tonight.” He handed the memory card from his camera to Dell. “Group them with the ones you took of Phelps and print them out. We’ll regroup in the morning.”
Tuesday, February 23, 6:45 a.m.
“You’re here early,” Jack said, dropping into his chair.
“I had a busy night. Somebody tried to break into Eve’s place last night.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“I tried. Left you a message on your cell. Figured you were just sound asleep. If the unis had found anything, I’d have called your home phone and woke you up.”
Jack frowned at his cell phone. “There is no call from you in my log.”
Noah wanted to tell him to cut the bullshit, but didn’t have the energy. “Maybe you need a new phone,” he said wearily. “I asked Micki to check the area around Eve’s apartment this morning. We’ll see what she finds. Is one of those for me?”
Jack had two full cups from his favorite coffee house. “They were both for me, but you look like you need it more.” He slid a cup across their desks. “What’s that?”
“Eve’s test participants. I’m comparing them against the suicide reports.”
“She gave you the list?”
“I didn’t have to ask twice. So far, no matches. That’s the good news.”
“Bad news is you’ve got a long list and we don’t know who he’s targeting next.”
“It’s not that bad. Eve separated out the heavy users. If he’s luring them to meet him somewhere, it stands to reason that he’d have a better chance of encountering them in the virtual world the more frequently they play.”
“Makes sense to me.”
Noah sat back, pushing the list away for a little while. “So why are you here early?”
“I found Taylor Kobrecki’s pals at a bar last night. The bar was the first number on Kobrecki’s grandmother’s LUDs. She called the minute you left her yesterday.”
“I bet his pals say they haven’t seen him in weeks and Taylor would never hurt a fly.”
“Almost word for word. When I asked their names, they gave me every crank-call name in the book, so I waited for them to leave and copied down license plates. I’ll run their addresses. One of them could be hiding him.” Jack tossed his hat to his desk. “Although if Kobrecki’s IQ is anywhere near his Neanderthal pals’, there’s no way in hell he’s smart enough to have pulled this off.”
“Did you talk to any of the women who filed complaints about him?”
“Two of the three. Both caught him staring in the bedroom window. Both filed a complaint and suddenly things started breaking in their respective apartments. Finally both moved out, saying Mrs. Kobrecki would lie like a rug to protect her grandson.”
“So he’s a peeper and a sniffer. Could he have moved to murder? It’s a big step.”
Jack shrugged. “Like I said, based on the friends he hangs with, I don’t think he’s got the brains. But we’ll keep looking for him, if for no other reason than to cross him off.”
“Speaking of lists, I need to get back to this one. We’re going to have to decide if we begin contacting the heavy users on Eve’s list or not. If we do, Eve will bear the brunt.”
“And if we don’t,” Jack said seriously, “we could find one of them hanging from a rope. There’s really no choice, Web.”
“I know,” Noah said. “And Eve knows that, too.”
“Give me half of the names,” Jack said. “I think our time is better spent identifying potential victims than tracking Taylor Kobrecki.”
“You’re right.” Noah gave him half the stack. “Focus on the heavy users.”
They worked for twenty minutes in silence, and then Jack spoke in a strained tone. “Web, I think I found Samantha Altman.”
Noah’s head jerked up. “What? Eve said she wasn’t on the list.”
“She wasn’t, not as Samantha Altman.” Jack handed Noah a single sheet across their desks. “I put a check next to her name.”
“Samantha Porter,” Noah read, then he remembered. “She’d just gotten divorced. Porter was her married name, but she’d gone back to Altman.”
“But when she signed up for this study, she was still Samantha Porter.”
“Eve’s got her in the lightest user group. Zero to five hours a week.”
“Samantha couldn’t play if she was dead,” Jack said dryly, then he frowned when Noah picked up the phone. “What are you doing?”
“At this hour?”
“She won’t mind.”
“Noah?” Her voice was husky with sleep and he pushed the distracting mental image of her snug in bed from his mind. “What’s happened?”
“We found Samantha Altman, the first victim, on the list you gave me last night.”
He heard the creak of bedsprings. “That’s impossible. I checked myself. Twice.”
“She’d just gotten divorced and Altman was her maiden name. She’d registered with you as Samantha Porter. She was in the light user group.”
There was a pause, then a quiet sigh. “Because she was dead. She would have been at the zero end of zero to five hours a week. Oh God.”
“Can you check her usage history, find out when she stopped playing?”
“Already checking. Hold on… Two weeks ago she went from six hours a day to nothing. I must have seen this. How did I miss this?”
“If you had seen it, you just would have thought she’d lost interest in the study.”
“You’re right.” She drew a breath. “Hysterics won’t help. What do you need?”
Noah’s respect for her ratcheted up. “I take it you never saw the avatar who was with Christy Sunday night.”
“He wasn’t on.” She went quiet. “I’d convinced myself that a local killer trolling for local women was more likely to find my test subjects as we’d geographically stacked the deck. But now, three for three… Somebody has access to our subject list.”
“Jack is here. I’m going to put you on speaker. Who has access, Eve?”
“Jeremy Lyons. He’s Dr. Donner’s secretary. He typed the names in. And anybody who has access to Jeremy’s office. Jeremy keeps his user name and password on a sticky note under his desk blotter. If his computer is on, you can get in.”
“So anybody wanting the files would have to physically go to his office?”
“Well, no. If you connect to the university’s server from an outside line, you could also get in.” She hesitated. “With Jeremy’s password, that’s pretty easy to do.”
Which was how she’d found Christy’s address. “Who had access to his office?”
“Anybody who enters the building. Jeremy takes a lot of bathroom breaks and leaves his computer unattended. Anybody who knew about the study could have managed it.”
This wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear. “Which includes who?”
“Dr. Donner, the committee that approved my thesis proposal, any of the members of the study itself, most of the grad students in the department, and ShadowCo.”
Noah frowned. “Why ShadowCo?”
“They sponsored my research. Not a huge stipend, but enough so that their PR people could say they put money toward responsible use of role play games.”
“In other words,” Jack said, “a helluva lot of people.”
“Well, maybe somebody saw him with Christy on Monday night,” Noah said. “If he broke into her house, we should have seen evidence of forced entry. If he lured her out, hopefully somebody saw them. Does Shadowland keep track of conversations?”
“It’s up to the individual. A lot of gamers don’t want anyone to know where they’ve gone or who they’ve met. Anonymity is a benefit of the game.”
“If the user does choose to save the conversations, where do they go?” Jack asked.
“They’re saved to the gamer’s hard drive. I suppose ShadowCo may store them on their servers, but that seems unlikely given the volume of conversations. It would be like if the wireless companies kept track of each individual text message or IM. They don’t because they simply don’t have the capacity. Did you get Christy’s computer?”
“Yes, but it’s… unlikely that we’ll find anything on it.” Especially if the killer had switched Christy’s computer as he’d done with Martha’s.
“We may have to resort to old-fashioned detective work,” Jack said with a wry smile.
Noah didn’t feel much like smiling back. “Eve, for now, I’d like a list of anyone you know who could have accessed the files. We’ll start with alibis for Donner, Lyons, and the grad students. I’ll be in touch.” Noah hung up and leaned back in his chair. “Well?”
Jack lifted his brows. “I was right. She would have been great at phone sex.”
Noah gritted his teeth, irritated. “Jack.”
“You have no sense of humor,” Jack said and Noah gritted his teeth harder.
“Christy Lewis. She’s online chatting up avatars around midnight Monday morning. She’s gotta be dead before nine o’clock, because she doesn’t show up for work.”
Jack grimaced. “And there’s a snake involved.”
Noah took the lid off the coffee cup Jack had brought him and stirred in his normal four packs of sugar. “We can’t forget about the snake. Why use a snake?”
“ ’Cause he’s a sick bastard. You don’t need all that sugar. This coffee is good.”
Sugar had become his vice when he’d quit the booze. “Habit. Okay, so we know he’s a sick bastard. He’s killed three women. Still, why the snake?”
“Maybe Ian can tell us more after he finishes the autopsy.”
Noah stood up. “He said he’d do it last night. Let’s find out if he’s done.”
Tuesday, February 23, 6:45 a.m.
Liza cooked the last egg they had. They were always low on food, but she’d been afraid to spend any money until Lindsay came home. If she ever comes home. The police weren’t looking for her. Nobody was looking for her, nobody except me.
She closed her eyes, so tired. She’d covered miles the night before, only to come up empty-handed. No one had seen Lindsay. She’s dead.
A wave of grief washed over her. Don’t give up. If Lindsay was lying in an alley somewhere, hurt, she was frozen by now. Don’t give up.
She lifted her chin. She had an English exam today. When Lindsay did return, she’d kick Liza’s butt for failing a test and losing her chance for a scholarship.
She went back to her room to get ready for school.
Tuesday, February 23, 7:25 a.m.
Noah and Jack found Ian at his desk, typing a report. “I was going to bring a report to Abbott’s 8:00 a.m. meeting,” Ian said. “You didn’t have to come down.”
“We’re stuck on the snake,” Noah said. “We don’t know why he used it and were hoping you found something that would shine some light on it.”
“Because he’s a sick bastard?” Ian said sourly.
“Told you so,” Jack said.
“I was hoping for a more scientific explanation,” Noah said. “Anything, Ian?”
“Plenty.” He pulled the sheet from Christy’s body. “She has the same puncture on her neck and was positive for ketamine, just like Martha. Unlike Martha, Christy was restrained at her ankles. The rope burns are only on the front, bruising on the back.”
“She was tied to a chair,” Noah said.
“I think so. There is also swelling in her elbows.” Ian looked up, his eyes weary. “We see that elbow swelling when the arms are kept crossed over the torso for long periods of time, like this.” He demonstrated. “But there’s no evidence of arm or wrist restraint.”
Jack frowned. “Straitjacket?”
“It makes sense,” Ian said. “A straitjacket will immobilize without leaving marks. I found bruising between her shoulder blades, same height as the chairs around her dining room table. I think she struggled, repeatedly rocking back against the chair.”
“Trying to get away from the snake,” Jack said, horror in his voice.
Noah cringed at the thought. “He tied her to a chair and set a rattlesnake on her?”
Jack looked ill. “If she struggled, she wasn’t sedated. Why the ketamine?”
“Good question. Perhaps he sedated her before, to get the jacket on her,” Ian said. “Officially, strangulation was once again the cause of death.”
“He terrified her,” Noah murmured. “Why? Other than the fact he is a sick bastard?”
“Sometimes it’s just because they can,” Jack said.
Noah sighed. “True. But why a snake? How did he know that would scare her?”
“Most people are afraid of snakes,” Jack said thinly. “It’s a common phobia.”
“I suppose. Still doesn’t feel right. What else, Ian?”
Ian shrugged. “She ate waffles a few hours before she died, with maple syrup.”
“And time of death would have been when?” Noah asked.
“Sometime between five and six yesterday morning.”
Noah did the math. “So she ate waffles around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. She either made them in her own kitchen or she went out.”
“I didn’t see any evidence that she cooked,” Jack said. “I think she went out. And at that time of the morning, there aren’t many places that serve. This is a good break.”
“So we take her photo to the all-night diners and waffle houses around town.”
“She also filled her tank with gas. There were traces of hydrocarbons on her hands.”
“A waffle house near a gas station,” Noah mused. “When will you get Samantha?”
“Sometime after eight. Since I’ve given you my prelim, I’ll stay here and start on Samantha Altman’s autopsy as soon as she arrives. I’ll be in touch.”
Tuesday, February 23, 7:45 a.m.
Eve was frying eggs when David stumbled into her kitchen, rubbing his eyes.
“You need a new couch, Evie. I could feel every spring.”
She handed him a cup of coffee. “I know. I got it from a yard sale.”
“Yeah, I noticed. Nice to have someone cook for me occasionally.”
She put their plates on the table. “Don’t any of those other firemen cook?”
“Out of a Hamburger Helper box. Hey, these are pretty good.” “Even I can fry an egg. So, you gonna fix my roof today?”
“If it stays dry. Who was that on the phone earlier?”
Eve picked at her breakfast. “Noah Webster. They found the first murdered woman on my list. She’d signed up under her married name, but got divorced. Three for three.”
David sighed. “Sucks, kid. But you still aren’t responsible.”
“Neither Samantha nor Christy had played Shadowland before we placed our recruiting ad. They were there to be preyed upon because they signed up for my study.”
“And if you’d asked them to take a daily walk in the park and they’d been mugged? Would that have been your fault, too?”
He was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. “No.”
He set back to work on his breakfast. “You break into Shadowland yet?”
“Not yet. I upped my network privileges, but I still haven’t got the keys to the kingdom. I’m a lot closer though. Shouldn’t take too much longer.”
“So you’re going to stay here all day to work on that, right?”
“No. I’m not going to stay here all day so you can watch over me. But thanks.”
He frowned. “Then where will you be today?”
“On campus. Somebody’s gotten access to our study files. It’s the only way he could have picked all three women.”
His frown deepened. “And what will you do should you find this person?”
“Don’t worry. I’m not planning to make any citizen’s arrests. I’ll call Webster.”
“And what if he comes after you when you’re alone on campus? What then?”
“I’m licensed to carry a concealed. I never leave the house without my gun in my computer bag. Except for yesterday.” She bit at her lip. “I was so rattled over seeing Christy hanging like that, I forgot a lot of things.”
“Considering you were cuffed and questioned, it’s probably good you didn’t have your gun with you. I’ll drive you to school. Let me know when you’re ready to leave.”
Tuesday, February 23, 8:05 a.m.
Abbott tossed the morning Mirror on the table. “That punk reporter Buckland was at your scene last night,” he snapped. “What happened to securing the perimeter?”
Jack frowned. “I didn’t see Kurt Buckland there yesterday.”
Micki pulled the paper closer to where she and Carleton Pierce sat. “I didn’t either, and Christy’s house is pretty remote. We would have seen his car if he’d driven up. Must have parked a ways off and used a telephoto.”
Noah scanned the front-page article whose headline screamed RED DRESS KILLER and in smaller caps, THREE WOMEN DEAD. “He’s named all three women, including Samantha. Here’s a quote from her mother. ‘We knew our daughter could never have killed herself.’ ” He passed the paper to Jack. “I bet he was following us yesterday when we went to see Samantha’s mother.”
“Asshole reporter even added the part about the snake,” Jack said, pushing the paper away in disgust. “We would have held that back.”
“Find out where he was hiding,” Abbott said grimly. “I want to know how he knew about the red dresses and the snake and I want him kept away from our crime scenes.”
Carleton looked uncomfortable. “Are you sure that’s the best approach? It’ll just make him more determined. Maybe he would make a better ally.”
Abbott scowled. “I’m not embedding any media in my teams.”
“I didn’t say strap him to your chest like a papoose, Bruce,” Carleton said mildly. “I’m familiar with minds like his. If you deny him access, he’ll go on the offensive.”
“The doc’s right,” Jack said. “I’d rather control what this Buck-land guy knows. On the bright side, at least he didn’t know about the connection.”
Carleton looked around the table. “And that would be?”
“Ever hear of a computer game called Shadowland?” Noah asked before Jack could mention Eve. Noah wasn’t sure Carleton would be allowed to keep her involvement from her faculty advisor. Ethically Carleton might have to tell.
“I never got into computer games,” Carleton said. “But I take it that the victims did.”
“Big time,” Jack said. “Hours a day.”
“I have a few patients who have game addictions. They talk about a Worlds of War.”
“Warcraft,” Jack corrected. “Similar principle.”
“We found that all three women were participating in a psychological study at one of the local universities,” Abbott added and Noah wanted to protest, but it was too late.
Carleton’s brows shot up. “How did you find this out?”
“Confidential informant,” Noah said.
“Does this informant have a name that you’d care to share with the team?” Carleton asked quietly, but he was angry and Noah supposed he had a right to be.
Abbott nodded. “Yes. If it comes down to it, we’ll tell you.”
“For now,” Noah added, “we don’t want to put you in the spot of having to report it.”
“Pesky ethics,” Carleton said tightly, his smile forced. “Fine. For now. So… obviously somebody besides your CI knows about this study. Do you know who?”
“We’re investigating that today,” Noah said. “Your profile would be a big help.”
“I’m not so sure it’s accurate anymore. Knowing about the computer game could make a difference. Knowing there is a link to a psychological study makes an even bigger difference.” Carleton’s voice was sharper than Noah had ever heard it. “It’s possible I wasted five hours of my night on a profile that is completely meaningless.”
Noah closed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Carleton. I didn’t think about that.”
“I guess not,” Carleton replied. He pressed his fingertips to his temples, then lifted his head. The anger was gone, but the irritation was still there. “Tell me what you can.”
Tuesday, February 23, 8:45 a.m.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for Eve Wilson.”
Dr. Donner’s odious secretary, Jeremy Lyons, pointed. “She sits back there.”
Eve closed her laptop quickly. Dammit. She’d been so close to getting into Martha Brisbane’s Shadowland file, but a man was coming her way. He was clean-cut, well dressed, but there was an arrogant gleam in his eye. Eve instantly did not trust him.
“Miss Wilson.” He held out his hand. “I’m Kurt Buckland, with the Mirror.”
She shook his hand reluctantly. “Mr. Buckland. I’m rather busy at the moment.”
He ignored her. “So tell me how you knew the three murdered women.”
Years of maintaining the secrets of Dana’s shelter had taught her how not to react. But it was hard. She blinked. “Murder? You have the wrong woman, Mr. Buckland.”
“You drive an old Mazda. Blue with a dented fender. Yes?”
“Yes. But I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Your car still sits in front of Christy Lewis’s house. You were at Martha Brisbane’s apartment.” He handed her another photo. It was her with Noah and her heart sank.
He knew. Soon everyone would know that her study had lured these women to their deaths. Their killer would know they knew and the police would lose any advantage.
“You spoke with the detective,” he said. “I want to know what he said.”
Even as her heart pounded, she was relieved. The intruder last night was this reporter. Not a killer. “Talk to Detective Webster.” She swiveled in her chair, hoping he would leave.
Instead he leaned against her cubicle wall. “So. What was it like to die? Twice? Did you see bright white lights? God? Angels? Or was it hellfire and brimstone?”
Fury bubbled, but she kept her cool. “Use your imagination. It’s what you’re good at.”
“I’ll pick God and angels. So, when that man strangled you, did it hurt?”
It had. It still did, in her worst nightmares. Worse, it shamed her. No more.
Slowly she stood, damned if she’d be victimized again. “Yes, it hurt very much. I have a scar from where he wound twine around my throat. Would you like to see it?” She unfastened the leather choker she always wore, leaned forward, chin high. “Would you like to touch it? So that you can more accurately describe it to your readers?”
His eyes flashed. “You can’t bluff. I get what I want, or I will print your personal story. Tell me about these three murdered women and your privacy will remain intact.”
She smiled at him, a full smile that accentuated the dead side of her face. It looked creepy, she knew. Phantom of the Opera creepy. She’d perfected her half smile so she wouldn’t see the disgust she saw on Kurt Buckland’s face at this moment.
“You’ve already breached my privacy,” she said loudly. “Everyone in this room is googling me. They’ll be too polite to come and ask about it to my face. But they’ll talk among themselves. Bad move, raising your voice like that. You just lost your leverage.”
“The rest of my readers won’t be so polite,” he snapped. “They’ll point and stare.”
Eve laced her fingers loosely even though her insides were so taut she thought she’d break in two. “If you want a story, talk to Webster. You won’t get shit from me.”
He drew himself up tall and put his smile back on. “I’ll make sure you get a copy of tomorrow’s paper. For your scrapbook. You can paste a clipping next to this one.”
He tossed a photocopy of a murky newspaper photo to her desk and her taut insides shattered. That’s me. The day she’d been released from the hospital, almost six years ago. The face was horrifically scarred, the eyes wide and terrified. Eve felt the pain, all over again. But she’d made it through then. She was stronger now.
“One last chance,” he said quietly. “Nobody else has to see that.”
Eve made herself touch it. Keeping her hands steady, she brushed past Buckland, walked straight to the bulletin board and pinned the picture in the middle with a tack. Then she turned, her half smile in place. “I’m not afraid of you. Leave. Now.”
One of the other students rose from his cubicle. Jose was built like a brick, and now he put one of his beefy hands on Eve’s shoulder. “The lady said leave.”
“And stay away from my apartment,” Eve added, “or I’ll get a restraining order.”
Buckland glared. “I haven’t been near your damn apartment.”
“Save it for the judge. Stay. Away. From me.” With a final glower, Buckland walked away and Eve let out a breath. “Thanks, Jose. I owe you one.”
He took the horrible picture down. “You want me to shred this?”
Eve took it from his hands. “No. I think I’ll keep it.”
He took the choker from her stiff fingers and fastened it around her neck. Eve turned to thank him but something in his eyes gave her pause. “You already knew, didn’t you?”
He shrugged. “I was doing research last year for Abnormal.”
The class she was taking now. “The mind of serial killers,” she murmured.
“I found articles on Rob Winters.” She winced and he grimaced. “I’m sorry, Eve.”
“It’s okay. Really.” She made herself smile. “It’s not like we can go around calling him ‘He who should not be named.’ That’s kind of long.”
His lips twitched. “I think that’s copyrighted, anyway.” He sobered, kindly. “None of us knew what to say, so we decided not to say anything. It’s your business. Your life.”
“Which I think I just took a little more back of this morning.” And it made her proud.
Her elation was short-lived. Donner’s assistant was watching her with ill-disguised curiosity from behind his round spectacles. She’d waited all morning for Jeremy Lyons to take his break so she could download the study files from his PC. She didn’t want access traced to her own laptop and she wouldn’t dig Ethan in any deeper than he was.
But Jeremy had stubbornly stayed and soon Donner would return from the class he was teaching. After Buckland, Eve wasn’t sure she had the energy left to stand up to Donner, too. Donner would demand to know what she’d done, why she’d told the police about Martha when he’d all but commanded her to forget Martha’s name.
Besides, Donner had access to the list. As did Jeremy. They could be involved. She’d thought it a hundred times since talking with Noah that morning, but it was no easier to believe. Donner was an academic, Lyons an annoying weasel. Neither of them looked like killers.
But then, neither had Rob Winters when she’d first met him. “Jose, can you divert Jeremy? I need to get out of here and I don’t want to deal with him.”
Jose’s eyes narrowed. “I hate that little troll. Just leave him to me.”
Jose blocked Jeremy’s view and Eve sailed by without detection, but once outside the building, the bubble of accomplishment popped. I don’t have my car. And then Jeremy was running out of the psych building, followed by Jose. Instinctively, Eve ducked around the corner, into the alley between their building and the next. From here she could listen and see without being seen.
“Where is she? Dammit,” Jeremy said angrily.
“She’s gone home,” Jose said. “Let her be.”
Jeremy looked afraid, and the hairs on Eve’s neck lifted. “I’m so dead,” he muttered.
It could have been simply an overused phrase, but Eve was taking no chances. Sticking to the alleys, behind and between the buildings, she began to run, her cell phone in her hand.
Tuesday, February 23, 8:45 a.m.
So this is all being done within a game?” Carleton asked incredulously. “This is… amazing. And certainly changes the nature of my profile.”
“How so?” Noah asked.
“There’s a level of intelligence, of order that I’ve never seen before. You say he’s able to go in and change these game characters-”
“Avatars,” Jack inserted.
“Avatars,” Carleton repeated. “He’s got technical skills or he’s able to learn them quickly. And then there’s the cruelty. I have to tell you, I haven’t been able to get that victim from yesterday out of my mind. That he went to the danger and effort of locating a highly venomous snake, immobilized her… I don’t even want to imagine what that poor woman went through. I have patients with snake phobias and they are very real.”
Micki glanced at Jack, looking chastised. “We’re still trying to find out where he got the snake. But why only the snake with Christy? Why change his MO now?”
“And how will he change it the next time?” Jack asked grimly.
“I don’t want a next time,” Abbott said. “Micki, anything else from the scene?”
“Yeah.” Again the cautious look at Jack. “The snake had just ingested a mouse.”
Jack grimaced. “Oh God.”
“It hadn’t digested it yet. It must have swallowed it right before the killer blew its head off. We found a puncture in the mouse. It had been dosed with ketamine as well.”
“Why?” Jack mouthed the word.
Remembering the snake bite on Christy’s foot, Noah knew why. It made him ill.
“The mouse would have remained alive, warm-blooded,” Noah said. “Attractive to the snake. The mouse just wouldn’t have been able to run away.”
“The mouse was bait,” Carleton said, his voice thin and horrified. “Dear God.”
Abbott cleared his throat. “Keep the mouse out of the paper.”
Jack pulled his palms down his face. “I don’t want to think about that. Give me a few minutes to pull up the all-night waffle houses in the area and we can roll.”
“Christy Lewis’s last meal was waffles,” Noah explained. “We figure she ate it in the middle of the night, so we’re off to check the twenty-four-hour waffle houses and diners.”
Faye, their admin, stuck her head in the door. “Call from Ramsey in the DA’s office, Captain. You got your search warrant for that apartment next to the Brisbane woman.”
“Thanks,” Abbott said. “I’ll have Sutherland and Kane do the search. What about Taylor Kobrecki? Do we know any more about him?”
“I met his best pals,” Jack said. “He might be hiding with one of them.”
“I’ll have them checked. We will hold a press conference this morning. We have flyers made up with the victims’ photos to give to the press. If somebody saw them the night they died, we can start retracing their steps.”
“What about warning potential victims?” Micki asked.
“Do we even know who to warn?” Carleton asked.
“We know who the study’s heavy users are,” Jack said. “They’re the likely targets.”
“Wait.” Carleton held up his hand. “How do we know who the heavy users are?”
“Our CI gave us a list of study participants, organized by usage patterns. Jack and I will dig up contact info on the heavy users, but which he’ll target next is anybody’s guess.”
Abbott hesitated. “How many people are on the list?”
“Five hundred,” Noah said, “but only sixty that are both women and heavy users. Five ultra-users, like Martha.”
“Give me the list,” Abbott said. “Let me think about it.”
“We’re off to interview the study supervising professor. He and his assistant have direct access to the list. Then we’ll check waffle houses.” Noah had pushed away from the table when his cell phone rang. Eve. “What’s happened?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Do you know a reporter named Buckland?” she asked, her voice strained.
His heart sank. “Yes. I assume you do, too. How did he find you?”
“He saw my car at Christy’s. He paid me a visit today. He may be a problem.”
“Buckland’s already a problem. What did he say?”
“Oh, lots of things, but mostly he wanted to know about the murders. I didn’t tell him anything. Listen, I need my car. Is it possible someone could drive me up to get it?”
Noah frowned at the breathlessness in her voice. “Are you running?”
“Kind of. Dr. Donner’s assistant is out looking for me.”
“Define ‘out looking for me.’ ”
“When Buckland left, so did I. Donner’s assistant followed me outside. He’s checking buildings and cars, definitely looking for me.” There was fear in her voice. “I’m sticking to the alleys. Noah, this is like something out of a bad Jason movie. This is insane.”
It certainly was. “Can you get to the Deli?” It was a combination coffee house and sandwich shop near the campus. Next to Sal’s, it was a favorite cop haunt.
“Yeah. I’ll meet you there.”
“We’ll have a couple of officers there. You don’t have to sit with them, but they’ll be watching. Wait for me.” He turned back to the team. “Our CI’s run into some trouble.”
Jack was buttoning his coat. “I like the Deli. They have fantastic pastrami.”
“Wait.” Carleton stood. “I know you’re trying to keep your CI safe, and presumably employed. But I’m not the ethics police. I won’t turn him in. I may even be able to help.”
Noah was listening. “How?”
“If I don’t know who’s running your CI’s study, I’ll know somebody who does. If your CI is running into trouble, I may be able to smooth the way with his boss.”
Noah nodded. “Right now the issue seems to be with the boss’s assistant, but I’ll tell the CI you’ve offered to help. Thanks, Carleton. Really.”
“We’ll give you all the info soon,” Abbott added. “It’s not that we don’t trust you.”
Noah knew this had to be particularly awkward for Abbott. He and Carleton Pierce went way back. They all did. They’d used Carleton’s profiles to solve dozens of homicide cases over the years. But they’d promised Eve.
“I know that, Bruce. I don’t like it, but you obviously believe I’ll have a conflict of interest with this and I have to respect that. I’d offer to find another psychologist to do the profile, but you’d have the same issue with whoever had my role. Besides, this is a fascinating personality. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to study him.”
“I’d prefer it if you were studying him from closer range,” Abbott said dryly. “Like with him behind bars. Go,” he said, waving Noah and Jack toward the door. “I’ll have a squad car sent to the Deli. Call me when the situation’s clear.”
Tuesday, February 23, 9:30 a.m.
Eve bought a coffee and blindly grabbed a magazine from the rack, trying to blend in with the other coffee-breakers. The Deli may have been just a sandwich joint in the past, but now it was an upscale bistro where students and professors-and cops-came to meet, greet, see, and be seen. Kind of like Ninth Circle, without the bad band.
“Now, he’s something,” the guy behind the counter said. Eve looked down, grimly unsurprised to see the face of Jack Phelps staring up at her. She’d “blindly” grabbed MSP. A Freudian slip. Yeah, right. The barista winked. “He can book me any day.”
“Yeah. He’s something.” Now Jack’s partner… was something else. Eve wished she knew what. She had told him she didn’t want him, told herself she couldn’t have him, but when she got scared, Noah’s had been the first number she’d dialed.
With a quiet sigh, she sat behind two officers who casually sipped their coffee. They might be the cops Noah sent or they might really be on break. Either way, she felt safer close by.
She flipped pages until she found herself looking at the picture of Noah Webster as she had before, so many times. Jack’s face was something. Noah, though… His face was rugged, hard. Thuggish was the word that always came to mind.
Dangerous. But his green eyes could be warm. And he makes me feel safe.
The bell on the Deli’s door jingled and she lifted her eyes to see Jeremy entering, searching the room. He came straight toward her table, giving her only a moment to debate asking the cops behind her for help should she need it.
If you do, you’ll be admitting working with them. She wanted to delay that as long as she could, for the sake of Noah’s investigation. The longer the Shadowland connection went undisclosed, the longer Noah would have to hunt a three-time killer.
“Can I join you?” Jeremy asked, breathing hard. “Thank you.” He sat, without giving her time to say no, then took off his glasses, wiping away the condensation that had formed by coming into the warmth from the cold. “You’re a hard woman to catch, Eve.”
She dug deep, found a tone that felt right. One that was wounded, but still bristling from her altercation with Kurt Buckland. “I didn’t realize you were looking for me.”
“Donner told me to watch, that you might go to the press. You little conniving bitch.”
To the press. Not to the cops. Donner had immediately assumed she’d grab notoriety versus doing the right thing. Why am I not surprised? “I didn’t go to the press. That guy came to me. And in case you missed it, I didn’t cooperate with him.”
“A very convincing act, but as you came here to meet him it’s not going to fly.”
Eve shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
He pointed behind her. “Your reporter.” Eve was stunned to see Buckland watching with a smug smile. How long had he been there? “You’ll be thrown out of the program for this,” Jeremy said with satisfaction. “You never should have been here anyway.”
She turned back to Jeremy, shaken, but hoping it didn’t show. “Why not?”
“Most of your undergrad work was online. Your degree’s from a state school.”
She tried to focus on the weasel in front of her versus the snake behind her. “So?”
“So you got in because you’re a little victim, not because you were qualified.”
There was venom in the man’s voice, jealousy in his eyes. “And you are qualified?”
His jaw cocked. “Hell of a lot more than you.”
And then she understood. “You didn’t make the cut. That’s why you’re Donner’s office assistant and not his graduate assistant.”
A muscle in his cheek twitched. “I made the cut. But they let you in instead just because some guy slashed you. They thought you’d bring an ‘interesting point of view.’ ”
That she’d been admitted on something other than her own merit stung. Buckland’s observing them made it worse. But Jeremy was no longer talking about the cops. Where are you, Noah? “How would you possibly know that, Jeremy?” she asked.
“I know everything,” he spat contemptuously. “I see everything. I know every medical fact, your grades, your favorite color, and that you hate beets and heights. I can see it all.”
I can see it all… Her grades, likes, dislikes… Sonofabitch. He hacked into my file. Eve didn’t know whether to laugh at the irony or be angry. In the end she did neither, opting for a weariness that was not an act. “I did not call that reporter today, so you can go back and tell Dr. Donner that whatever he was worried I’d say, I didn’t.”
Jeremy shrugged. “I’m not leaving until Donner gets here. If you didn’t tell the press, then you told the cops. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been with them last night.”
That was the first logical leap he’d made. “Donner’s coming here? Why?”
“To escort you back to his office, where he’ll formally kick you out of the program.”
Alarms went off in her head. Donner was coming. For me. “Which would open up a spot for you?” she asked, forcing a smile.
He nodded, graciously. “Yes.”
She kept her tone friendly. “So you think I went to the cops about… what?”
“Don’t know,” Jeremy admitted. His eyes dropped to the magazine. “That’s Webster, isn’t it? The cop that reporter saw you with.”
Indeed it was. And that was Webster, getting out of his car on the curb. He’d be coming through the Deli door in about ten seconds and would validate everything Jeremy and Buckland suspected. The seconds ticked and she made a decision.
There was a way to explain away her presence at both Christy’s and Martha’s homes yesterday, hopefully shutting down both Buck-land and Jeremy. She just prayed Webster would understand and play along.
She smiled proudly, running her thumb over the small photo. “Yes, that’s my Noah. I think he should have been on the cover, but I am a little biased.” She stood, waving broadly as the doorbell dinged and Noah came in. “Noah, honey, I’m over here.”
Webster’s eyes flicked down to the stunned face of Jeremy Lyons, then without missing a beat, he approached, his smile warm. Her heart thumped hard in her ears, harder in her chest. She knew what she needed to do. Channeling Greer and every imaginary character she’d ever created, she reached both arms up around his neck and pulled his faced down for a hard kiss on the lips, making it linger a few seconds longer than might have been appropriate.
His arms came around her naturally, as if they’d done this a thousand times. He was rock solid, just as she’d known he’d be. But his lips were far softer than she’d expected. And sweeter. And hotter. What have I done?
She eased back, rocked to the soles of her feet. There had been a split second of shock in his green eyes, quickly obliterated by a flare of desire. It was still there, tempered by his control.
Remembering what she had to do, she slipped her arm around his waist and turned back to Jeremy, whose mouth had fallen open. “Noah, I want you to meet Jeremy Lyons. He works for my graduate advisor, Dr. Donner.”
Noah shook Jeremy’s hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said, then put his arm around her shoulders, lightly squeezing.
“Likewise,” Jeremy murmured.
“So, Jeremy, now you know. We hoped to keep it to ourselves a little longer. You know how people talk. But…” Eve shrugged. “I guess the cat’s out of the bag, Web.”
“We knew we couldn’t keep it a secret forever,” Webster said, his voice a soft caress that sent shivers racing across her skin and she had to remind herself that none of this was real. It was as imaginary as any relationship in Shadowland.
You can’t have him, so don’t dream. But she would dream, because now she knew what it was like to hold him, to feel his body against hers. What have I done?
Noah cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, I can’t stay, babe. I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Oh,” she said feigning disappointment. “I understand.” But when her smile faltered, it was sincere. “Then, can you take me home? I had kind of a difficult morning.”
Webster rested his cheek against the top of her head and for just a moment more Eve held on to the dream, leaning into him. “Sure,” he said quietly. “Let’s go.”
She gathered her things and walked away, Webster’s arm still tight around her shoulders. The cold air on her hot face felt good and she let out a long sigh of relief. Phelps was sitting in the front passenger seat, eyes wide, obviously having seen it all.
Webster opened the back door, and only then did he relinquish his hold. “You’d better make me that key after all,” he murmured, surprising a snort of laughter from her.
“Babe?” she asked, and he smiled wryly.
“I panicked. Now, buckle up,” he said and closed the door.
Jack waited until they’d cleared the first intersection before twisting around to stare at her, then at Webster. “And that was…?”
Really nice, Eve thought, resisting the urge to lick her lips to see if she could still taste him. A dream. “Damage control,” she murmured. “It’s been an eventful morning.”
Tuesday, February 23, 9:55 a.m.
Noah’s heart had not stopped pounding. First he’d feared for her safety, then she’d rocked him with a kiss she’d called “damage control.”
Now it pounded with helpless rage as his hands twisted the wheel, wishing it was the reporter’s neck as she relayed the details of Buck-land’s visit. “He threatened you?” he asked ominously, and in his rearview he could see her grow wary.
“I dealt with it,” she said. “Whatever hold he thought he had over me, he doesn’t.”
And for that, he was fiercely proud of her. “It doesn’t matter. He had no right.” No right to extort her with her own assault. It was as if she’d been victimized a second time.
“You’re not helping,” she said softly and she was right.
“I’m sorry.” But he wasn’t sorry, not really.
“At any rate,” she said, “Buckland’s been following you to your crime scenes. He followed me to the coffee shop.”
“He was there?” Jack asked. “Just now?”
“Yeah. I guess he thought I’d meet you, to warn you about the pictures. I didn’t want him to think he was right. So I… did what I thought I needed to do.”
Damage control, Noah thought bitterly. “I understand.”
“Hopefully Buckland and Jeremy don’t think I’m part of your case anymore. But you need to watch out. Buckland wants his story and he’ll keep following you till he gets it.”
“He’s following us now,” Jack said. “Has been since we left the Deli.”
Noah checked his rearview again, focusing on the traffic behind him instead of the woman in the backseat. A dark Subaru was maintaining a safe distance. “Sonofabitch.”
“You gotta hand it to the man for persistence,” she said, wry amusement in her voice. “Are we going to lose him in a mad dash? Is that why you told me to buckle up?”
Noah chuckled in spite of the anger churning in his gut. “Sorry. It’s against regs.”
“Well, damn,” she said. “I haven’t had a good mad dash in years.”
Jack twisted in his seat so he could look back at her. “If I promised you a mad dash, would you kiss me like that?” There was something harsh and almost demeaning in Jack’s tone and Noah shot him a furious glare.
In the rearview, Eve’s smile disappeared and she looked away, embarrassed. “No.”
“Jack,” Noah gritted.
Jack settled in his seat with a sarcastic sigh. “Can’t blame a man for trying, Web.”
Noah bit his tongue. Focus on the case, not flattening Jack’s pretty face.
Eve must have thought the same. “Now what? I tried to confuse things by insinuating that I was there to meet Noah, but I don’t know if I convinced him.”
“You sure as hell convinced me,” Jack said blandly.
“Jack,” Noah muttered between his teeth. But she sure as hell convinced me, too, he thought. And he was already wishing for another demonstration.
“You convinced every guy in the place,” Jack added as if Noah hadn’t spoken.
“Do you mind?” Eve shook her head angrily. “This is serious, Detective.”
“It’s his way,” Noah said flatly. “How easy will it be to connect you to Shadowland?”
“Pretty easy,” she said. “All the grad students know it’s part of my thesis, although after this morning I don’t think they’ll talk to Buckland.”
“That’s good,” Noah said. He nearly asked her if she’d gotten into the Shadowland network, but he knew she’d have told him if she had. “Now, what do we do with you?”
“I have a good idea,” Jack muttered, and Noah clenched his teeth so hard they hurt.
I am so going to turn you in. He should have done it years ago. Why he hadn’t was a mystery to many, he knew. He was aware of the talk, the betting pool, but like a fool, he’d hoped Jack would get his life back together. I did, after all.
“What do you mean?” Eve asked warily. Apparently she hadn’t heard Jack’s mutter.
“That if Buckland knows you’re involved, it’s just a matter of time before he prints it.”
“He’s printed just about everything else,” Jack said sourly.
“Like what?” she demanded. “What did he print?”
Noah hesitated. “That they wore red dresses and the killer used a snake on Christy.”
“A snake?” She looked confused. “Like, a real snake?”
“A real rattlesnake,” Jack said grimly. “It bit her.”
“Did he do that to Martha?” she asked, troubled.
“No,” Noah said. “And we’re not sure why.”
“Did he sexually assault these women?” she asked.
Jack frowned. “Why do you want to know?”
“Did he?” she insisted and Jack shook his head, disgruntled.
“No, he didn’t.”
“So he meets them in the virtual world, attacks them in their own homes, strangles them, then stages a hanging. And now he uses a snake, a common phobia.”
Noah glanced at her again in the rearview. She’d become very quiet, her expression contemplative. “Do you know why he used the snake, Eve?”
“Maybe. Something Jeremy said today just struck me. He was on a diatribe, telling me why I didn’t belong at Marshall, throwing out things he had no business knowing.”
“Like?” Noah prodded gently.
“My favorite color and that I don’t like beets. Or heights.” She said the last words slowly. “I’m trying to remember who I told that to. The only thing I can think of is that I filled out a questionnaire when I was first admitted to the program. We did something similar with our study, asked all the things they love, hate, things that comfort, scare them…”
Noah got it. “If he has the files, he would have seen Christy’s questionnaire.”
Eve nodded. “And if she wrote she was afraid of snakes, he would have known. Did Martha’s autopsy show anything odd?”
“Her blue lungs,” Jack murmured.
“She had blue lungs?” Eve asked. “Why?”
“The ME thinks her killer shoved her face in a toilet,” Noah said. “We need to see those study files, Eve. We need to know what these participants said they feared, and as soon as we request the subpoena, your role in this will come out.”
“I know.” She hesitated. “I can get the files for you faster.”
Jack frowned. “And more secretly?” he asked pointedly. “And more safely for you?”
Noah glared at him yet again. “Jack.”
“No, you listen. Anything she gets by hacking is poisoned fruit. The DA will throw any arrests out like yesterday’s garbage and us with it. No hacking. We do it by the book.”
There was an anger in his partner’s voice that Noah wasn’t sure he’d heard before, but before he could get closer to its cause, Eve spoke, calmly, coolly.
“My role in all this will come out, Detective Phelps. That’s a given at this point. I’ll be taken before the committee and probably thrown out of the program. If that happens, I’ll be blackballed from any other program. I think it’s safe to say my career is over, so secrecy-and safety-for myself isn’t my main concern.”
“So what is your main concern?” Jack asked, his voice also cool.
“That you not show your hand to this monster too soon. If he knows you know his MO, he’ll change it. He will kill again. It gives him… pleasure.”
A shiver went down Noah’s spine, not from her words, but from the way she said them, almost as if she were in a trance. “How do you know that it gives him pleasure?”
She looked away, the spell broken. “It just makes sense. Get your subpoena for the files if you like. I don’t know what the file names are, but I can get you a description. That should speed your warrant. Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to go home.”
Tuesday, February 23, 10:35 a.m.
“You didn’t have to walk me up, Detective,” Eve said as she let herself in.
Noah followed her inside her apartment, closing the door behind him. She’d become formal again. He’d liked it much better when she’d relaxed her guard and wondered how to get her to do it again. “Yes, I did. Where’s Hunter?”
“Probably buying roofing supplies.” Her smile was brittle. “I’m fine, as you can see. Your partner is waiting for you, so go.” She went to the window and stood, eyes closed.
“I’ll go in a minute.” He stood behind her, wanting to touch, but knowing she didn’t want him to. “I know you weren’t offering to get us access to protect yourself.”
“Don’t be so sure your partner wasn’t right,” she murmured. “Maybe I was.”
He gave in to the need to touch her, grasping her shoulders gently. She tensed, but her face reflected in the window remained unmoving. He kneaded, wishing he could turn her around and kiss her again. She’d know it was real this time.
But he didn’t, instead dropping his hands to his sides. “I don’t want you here alone.”
She shrugged. “It’s much more likely Buckland was here last night, and not your killer. He’d been following you and latched on to me.”
“Still, if Buckland prints your name, the man who killed three women will know you are involved. Then he may come after you.”
Her mouth firmed, her chin lifted. “I hope he does. I’ll be ready for him.”
Alarm had him frowning. “Eve, this isn’t the virtual world where you can kick ass as Nemesis or Greer. This is real. He’s killed three times. He won’t blink at four.”
“Which is why as Eve,” she said, with a calm that rattled him, “I have a very real gun and I know how to use it. It goes with the whole survivor thing.”
He knew he should go, but didn’t. “What else goes with the survivor thing?”
“Different things. I wasn’t always like I am now. I sat in the dark for two years after my assault. Never looked in mirrors and didn’t leave the house unless I had to, and when I did it was under an inch of makeup because I was afraid.”
“Of?” he asked softly.
“Of the way people looked at me. I was young, before. Pretty. Then, I was a freak. Scarred. People stared in horror, grateful it hadn’t happened to them, scared that it could. Nobody looked me in the eye. Once I made a child cry, he was so afraid of me.”
She’d dropped her eyes, shame in her voice and Noah’s heart squeezed so hard it hurt. But there was nothing he could say that she’d want to hear, so he stood, helplessly listening. After a moment she lifted her gaze, meeting his reflected in the glass.
“My world was in the computer. It kept me connected to people, and in many ways it kept me sane. When I finally got the courage to come out of the dark, helping people to break free like I did became more than a wish. It became my purpose. People need purpose, Noah. That’s a survivor thing, too.”
“I know,” he murmured. And he did know. “But I don’t want you to get caught.”
“I’m going to get caught, Noah. I’ll have to give up what makes me get up in the morning.” She swallowed hard. “And it’s killing me. But if I stand by and do nothing, I slide back into the dark. I can feel it, always there at my back, luring me back to where it’s safe. But even though it’s safe, it’s not right. I can’t expect you to understand that.”
But he did, more than she knew. In his mind he could see himself clawing his way out of the bottle. Out of the dark. Trying to escape the demons that had driven him there. Every day he had to renew that resolution. Every day he staved off the dark.
One day at a time had always seemed like a corny metaphor. Until it became his life. “I do understand.” He made himself smile. “It’s why I drink tonic water.”
She drew a quick breath, her eyes widening. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
He brushed his palm down her arm, just once. “I didn’t want you to. But you’re not alone and I do understand. Will you keep trying to get into the Shadowland files?”
“Do you want me to?” she asked and he carefully considered his answer. She had a purpose and he suspected she’d sacrifice a great deal to keep that purpose alive. But right now, he was more concerned about keeping her alive. And out of jail.
“What I want is to stop this guy before he kills anyone else. Including you. But I don’t want you to break the law. Jack is right on that. Nothing you give us that’s a product of an illegal enterprise can be used in court. We could catch him, but have to let him go. And, Eve, if you did something illegal, I couldn’t protect you either.”
“I don’t expect you to.” She turned suddenly, looking up with eyes that were almost black. Intense. He couldn’t have turned away had he tried. “Do you want me to stop?”
Desire surged through him like a storm and he tightened his hands into fists to keep them to himself. This is not the time, Webster. Focus. “Are you close?”
Her dark eyes flashed dangerously. She felt it too. “Very.”
He made himself think of Martha and Christy and Samantha. He thought of Eve, drawn into this mess because she couldn’t, wouldn’t look away. Then he thought of the other names on her list and wondered who would be next because a killer was playing a damned game. “No,” he whispered hoarsely. “I don’t want you to stop.”
She settled. “All right then. I’ll call you when I have something I think you can use.”
Cautiously he lifted his hand to touch her cheek. “Earlier, in the Deli…”
Her cheek grew flushed beneath his fingertips. “It won’t happen again.”
“Yes, it will. And when it does, it won’t be an act. For either of us.” He took a step back, dropping his hand from her face. “I need to go.”
She nodded, unsteadily, making his blood churn. “Don’t forget your hat.”
Noah took his hat from the bookshelf where he’d left it the night before. Questions filled his mind, too many to ask. But she’d opened the door to her life and he’d ask a question before she closed it again. “I read about what happened to you six years ago. But I couldn’t find anything about why. Why did that man try to kill you?”
“To get to his wife and his son. They’d run away because he’d beaten them for years. I knew them, loved them both. I didn’t know who he was at first, but figured it out. I was afraid he’d find Caroline and Tom and make their lives a living hell all over again.”
“So he was trying to stop you from warning them?”
“Partly, yes. But he had a gun. He could have just shot me and finished the job. Mercifully. But he didn’t.” She swallowed hard. “Instead, he stabbed me eight times. Slashed my face open. Nearly filleted my hand. Then he strangled me.”
“Because it gave him pleasure,” Noah said grimly.
“Yes.” She crossed her arms over her chest, body language screaming volumes. “I know the kind of monster you’re seeking, Noah. I stared mine in the eyes as he pulled that twine tighter around my throat. Yours won’t stop. He won’t stop until you stop him.”
“And you?” He had to force the words from his tight throat. “Until you stop him?”
Her eyes were dark. Stark. So incredibly alone. “I didn’t stop my monster. In my dreams he comes back, again and again. I’d do almost anything to stop yours.”
He nodded hard. “Lock your door.” He waited until he heard the deadbolt slide into place, then went back to the car where Jack was drumming his fingers impatiently.
“Are we ready to go to work now?” he asked acidly.
“In a minute.” Noah dialed Abbott. “It’s Web. Eve’s fine, but she’s had Buckland from the Mirror and her advisor’s secretary on her ass.”
“Where’s her ass now?” Abbott asked dryly.
“We just took her home. We’re going to Marshall to talk to Lyons and Donner, then work the waffle houses. Has Faye run checks on Jeremy Lyons and Donald Donner?”
“I’ll check and call you,” Abbott said.
Noah made himself say it. “We need to make a formal request to the university for their subject files. Eve said each participant listed their worst fear on a questionnaire.”
“The snake,” Abbott said. “That actually makes sense. As soon as we make the request, Eve’s going to be the first person they look to for the leak.”
“She knows that. She’s prepared to take the consequences.”
Abbott sighed. “Maybe Carleton can help her so this doesn’t damage her too much.”
“Damage control,” Noah murmured, fighting the urge to lick his lips. “I hope so.”
Jack’s jaw was tight when he’d hung up. “Now we get to work?”
Noah took one last look in his rearview before putting the car into gear. “Yes.”
Tuesday, February 23, 10:45 a.m.
Frowning, Harvey watched Webster and Phelps drive away. “Who lives here?”
Dell was busily inputting the address into the property tax web-site he’d brought up on his BlackBerry. “Deed’s held by a Myron Daulton.”
“Webster was here three times last night. She’s important. I got a picture of Webster walking her inside. Unfortunately, he didn’t touch her, today or last night.”
Dell snorted. “He sure did at that coffee place. Take a look.”
Harvey looked at Dell’s camera display where Noah Webster and the woman were locked in a passionate embrace. “Webster is using taxpayers’ vehicles on taxpayers’ time to drive his lady friend around. But that’s not nearly enough.”
“No,” Dell murmured. “It’s not. Not nearly enough.”
“Dell. Remember our plan.”
Dell smiled slightly. “Of course. The plan that’s working so well.”
Harvey’s hand was slapping Dell’s mouth before he knew it. “Watch your mouth.”
Dell touched the corner of his lip. “Whatever you say, Pop.” But his eyes were hard and angry and Harvey wondered how much longer he’d be able to control his own son.
“Which way are they headed now?” Harvey asked.
Dell checked the navsat screen he held. Planting a tracking device under each of the detectives’ cars had been Dell’s idea, and a damn good one. “Toward the city.”
“Then follow. I’m right behind you.” Dell got out of the Subaru and went back to his own car while Harvey thought about Webster having a girlfriend. Women were weak. They’d be able to get all kinds of good information out of her with the right inducement.
Tuesday, February 23, 12:15 p.m.
“Thanks.” Eve glanced up briefly as David put a sandwich next to her elbow, then returned her eyes to her computer screen. “I appreciate you doing the shopping.”
“I thought I’d better, since I’d like to eat while I’m here,” he said. “Are you in?”
“Finally. ShadowCo’s security is better than average. Took longer than I thought.”
“And? What did you find?”
“What I expected. He altered the avatar files on both Martha’s Desiree and Christy’s Gwenivere. It’s how he made their faces look as if they’d been made up. He also changed the rooms in their virtual homes with the rope and the shoes he left behind.”
“And so? Can you figure out who he was?”
“Not directly. He made these changes using his victims’ user IDs. But both avatars have been changed the same way. If you dig deep enough, the graphics are just lines of code. The code gets kind of clunky, where he changed it.”
“Clunky.” He gave her an amused look. “So he’s an amateur?”
“Perhaps. The code he wrote gets the job done-the avatar’s face changed. But a professional programmer would have done it more elegantly.”
“Now you sound like Ethan,” David commented blandly. “He likes to say ‘elegant.’ ”
“Ethan taught me a lot,” she said cautiously. To love Dana could have meant David had to hate Ethan, but Eve knew that wasn’t true. Still, she was careful not to lavish too much praise on the man who’d made her guardian happy and her friend miserable.
“Like how to break and enter, virtually. Which can get you arrested in the real world.”
“Now you sound like Noah.”
“Whose hat is no longer on your bookshelf.”
Irritated, she kept her eyes on the screen. “You get the stuff to fix my roof?”
“Ordered it. I pick it up after three. I can take you up to get your car on the way.”
“Thank you. I’ll pay you for all the supplies.” She had enough put aside. She hoped.
“Miss Moneybags,” he scoffed gently. “I’ll pay for it. You do know you’re ultimately helping your landlord? Once he kicks you out, he’ll have an improved roof at no cost.”
“But he’ll learn that he can’t kick people around. That he can’t kick me around.” Then she understood. “You’re helping because you don’t want him kicking me around, either.”
“Too many people have,” he said quietly. “You’ve pulled yourself out of something that would have broken most people. I’m proud of you.” Her throat closed, her eyes filled. There were no words, but she knew he understood. “Get back to your virtual B &E. But I want you to give Webster a chance. That’s my price for fixing your roof.”
He left her alone, but Eve couldn’t focus. She saw Noah’s face reflected in the window, worried and understanding. That’s why I drink tonic water. She wondered what journey had brought him to the place of a recovering alcoholic.
She chided herself for being so selfish that she hadn’t seen, or cared for, his feelings. And for just a second she let herself remember how he’d tasted when she’d kissed him. How good she’d felt when his arms wrapped tight around her.
But giving him a chance? No. Not even for David. Because in the end she didn’t want to hurt Noah Webster or any other nice guy who was looking for a future, because in the end, there would be none. Not with me. That was Eve’s reality.
She blinked, clearing her eyes so that she could see her screen. For Noah, she had to be careful. After he’d left, she’d called Ethan and at his direction had taken precautions, routing through a dozen proxy servers to make tracing her online movement difficult. But ShadowCo could still find her, and the blame might fall on Noah.
And that wouldn’t do at all because Noah was a good man. There had to be a way to stop this monster. Just knowing he’d been in Shadowland, messing around with avatars, wasn’t good enough. She had to use what she knew to make him show his face in the real world. It wouldn’t be easy. Noah’s monster was very smart, so far staying one step ahead of them. I’ll just have to be smarter.
Tuesday, February 23, 2:30 p.m.
Liza sneaked out the ditching exit, the first time she’d ever ditched class. It wasn’t like it was real class, just a stupid assembly with a stupid jock. It was making her crazy, sitting in a stupid assembly when she could be looking for Lindsay. So she left.
“Hey, girl, you gotta light?”
She jerked around, startled. A kid was standing by the door, hunched over, hands in his pockets. “No. I’m sorry.” Unsteadily, she kept going. Too little sleep and no food had her light-headed. She had only a few dollars left and she needed them for bus fare.
The city bus stop was up a block, so she put her head down against the wind and started walking. The next thing she knew she was on her butt, her bookbag spilled, and her papers blowing away.
“I’m so sorry. Let me help you.” It was a really tall boy. No, older. College maybe. He gathered her papers and brought them to her. “Some of them got a little dirty.”
“It’s okay. Thank you.” She shoved the papers back in her bag and stood, stumbling at the next little dizzy spell. Note to self. Need to eat.
“Are you okay?”
She looked up. Way up. Liza was five-ten, so this guy had to be six-six. “I’m fine.”
He frowned, studying her face. “You don’t look fine. You look pale.”
“I’m fine. Really.” Then she huffed, frustrated as the city bus pulled away. “Except now I’ve missed my bus. The next one isn’t for twenty minutes.” Wasted time. Dammit.
She started walking fast and he walked beside her, ambling easily. “Did you come out of the smoker’s door?” he asked.
She glared up at him. “Are you gonna turn me in?”
“No. But, well, why are you ditching? You don’t look like the type.”
“And what type is that?” she asked between her teeth, thinking of the way that officer had dismissed Lindsay as a missing person because she was a… prostitute.
“The type to take AP English. Your paper on Heart of Darkness,” he added. “Most advanced students I knew would never ditch class. Plus, your eyes are red. You’ve been crying.”
“Allergies,” she snapped.
“In February?” He shook his head. “Try again.”
“I have someplace to go.” She glared up at him again. “Do you mind?”
“Where are you going?”
Liza rolled her eyes. “None of your business.”
“Well, I feel bad that you missed your bus. Can I give you a lift?”
She stared up at him, appalled. “No. If you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to call the cops. In fact, I’m going to the police station now and I’ll just report you.”
“Are you going to the police station because of your sister?”
Liza stopped short. “How did you know that?”
“Just guessed. One of the papers I grabbed was a police report. Barkley, Lindsay. The name on your English paper was Liza Barkley and you look like the mug shot.”
Liza shook her head. “What are you? Some kind of CSI wannabe creep?”
He smiled. “No, but you look like you need help and I feel bad that I’ve kept you from where you’re going. You can take a cab to the police station from here.”
“Yeah, right.” She started walking again, muttering under her breath, “Can’t even afford lunch and this idiot wants me to get a cab.”
“No, I’ll pay for it.” He was walking beside her again, holding out a twenty. “Get yourself something to eat while you’re at it. You don’t look so good.”
Liza stopped again and stared at the money in his hand. “You scare me.”
“Tell you what,” he said when she didn’t move. “There’s a sandwich place across from that bus stop. I’ll buy you some food and you can wait for the bus where it’s warm.”
She hesitated. “I don’t want your charity.”
“But you’re hungry. Come on.” He took the bag from her hand and started walking.
“Hey.” She stumbled trying to catch up. “That’s my bookbag.”
“Liza, trust me as far as that sandwich shop, okay?”
“Like I have a choice?” she asked, and hurried behind him.
True to his word, he went into the sandwich shop and put her bag on the table. “Sit. I’ll be back.” She obeyed, and a few minutes later he brought two sandwiches and fries. “Eat,” he said. Again, she obeyed, ravenous. “Slowly. How long since your last meal?”
“An egg this morning. Before that, lunch yesterday.” She said nothing more until she’d eaten her sandwich, fries, and his fries, too.
He was impressed. “Girls usually pick at food like it’s a disease. I’m Tom Hunter.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Tom. Thank you for the food. I was hungry.”
“Why did you ditch class?”
Now that she was no longer hungry, she could think. “It was just an assembly. They took us out of class to tell us to stay in school. How stupid is that? And jocks… like they know anything about school.” He was smiling at her. “What?” she demanded.
“I’m one of the jocks from the assembly. I graduated with a 4.0,” he added helpfully.
Liza’s face burned. “God. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Mostly you’re right. But that’s why I come to the schools. If the kids will listen to me, even one, it’s worth it. Why are you going to the police station?”
She studied him. He was handsome, blond with clear blue eyes. A basketball player, she remembered from the assembly announcement. A big-time college player. Some of the boys in class were drooling at the thought of seeing him. “Why do you care?”
He shrugged. “My mom’s something of a social worker. It’s ingrained. Look, I have a baby sister. Her name is Grace. If she were in trouble, I’d hope someone would help her. I won’t hurt you. If nothing else, I’m a damn good listener. So why were you crying, Liza?”
She let out a breath. “My sister’s missing.” And she told him the whole story, everything except living alone. “Yesterday I got that police report and last night I asked every hooker I could find and nobody knew her. I started thinking today that maybe somebody was arrested with her, in a raid, or maybe somebody bailed her out.”
“So you want to know if the police can tell you that?”
“I have to try. Nobody’s going to look for a missing hooker. Nobody but me.”
He frowned. “You went looking for your sister? Where did you find hookers?”
“Internet. I googled and found where they hang.”
He looked pained. “O-kay. I know a few cops. Let’s take a cab to the station, see what we can find out.”
“The city bus goes to the station. Give me the cop’s name and I’ll ask him.”
“You missed the bus again. But you were eating, so I didn’t want you to stop.”
She sighed. “You’re not going away, are you?”
“Not just yet. Come on, let’s go.”
Tuesday, February 23, 4:45 p.m.
Noah stopped in front of the fifth and last waffle house on Jack’s list. It was a diner off the interstate, next to a gas station. He hoped this had been Christy’s last meal.
They’d missed Donner and Lyons. Neither had been at their desks, nor at home. They’d go back later, now turning their attention to Christy’s last movements. Four waffle houses had been busts and his partner had been silently surly.
Noah’s patience was fraying around the edges. “Let’s just get this done.”
But Jack didn’t move. He sat, staring at the waffle house. “I’m sorry, Web.”
The quiet words were the first his partner had uttered in hours. “About?”
“I was out of line. I knew Eve wasn’t trying to save her own skin.”
“That apology should go to Eve. I don’t understand why you said it in the first place.”
“It’s not that complicated. I told you I’d been trying to get her attention for months.”
“Let me get this straight. You are jealous of me? You told me to ask her out.”
“Thinking she’d say no. I never expected her to fall all over you in less than a day.”
“That was just an act.” No, it wasn’t. Not for me. And when Eve was able, she’d say it hadn’t been for her either.
Jack opened his car door. “Not from where I was sitting. Let’s go.”
Noah followed him into the waffle house, forcing his mind to think about killing, not kissing. Jack had Christy’s driver’s license photo in his hand, showed it to the hostess.
“We’re with the police, ma’am,” Jack said. “Have you seen this woman?”
“No, but I’ve seen you.” She pointed to the magazine rack. “You’re Phelps.”
Jack winced. “Can we talk to the manager or some of the other servers?”
“Have a seat, Detectives. Can I get you some coffee?”
“No, ma’am,” Noah said. “We’ll wait.”
The manager hurried out. “I’m Richard Smith. Please come back to my office.”
“We’re looking for anyone who saw this woman early Monday,” Jack said.
“This shift wouldn’t have been here during the night. You should come back tonight.”
It was what they’d heard four times before. “Thank you, we’ll do that,” Noah said.
“Or,” Smith continued thoughtfully, “we have security video of the cash register.”
They’d also heard that four times before, but three of the cameras were pointed toward the cashier, management more concerned about employee theft than robberies. The fourth video quality was so bad they couldn’t see anything.
“That would be a big help,” Jack said. “Thank you.”
Smith went to his computer and began typing. “Sunday between midnight and four?”
Noah and Jack exchanged impressed glances. “You have it digitized?” Noah asked.
“We just invested in a new system about a year ago. There was a robbery next door. A kid was shot pretty bad. They had an old system and you couldn’t see the shooter’s face. We’re open all night, too. All of our people were at risk. So me and the manager next door went in together, got a better system and made sure everybody knew it. So far so good. Nobody’s hit us again.”
After a few minutes of stopping and starting, Smith looked up. “This might be her.”
“It’s Christy,” Noah said, when he looked at the screen. “Time was 3:24.”
“Here’s the crew that was on that night, with their phone numbers, in case you can’t wait until tonight to interview them. You’ll want the original digital video file, I assume.”
“Thank you,” Noah said, with relief. “Not many shops put this much into security.”
Jack’s eyes lit. “You have cameras in the parking lot. Here and the gas station?”
“Yes, sir,” Smith said proudly. “We sure do. You want video of the same time?”
“Plus two hours on either end, please,” Jack said, then turned to Noah. “If somebody followed her home, we’ll be able to find them.”
Tuesday, February 23, 5:00 p.m.
“Tom.” Olivia stood with a big smile for the young man crossing the bullpen. He was the son of one of her sister Mia’s best friends, accompanied by a girl with a sober, terrified look, and Olivia was instantly curious. “You played a great game on Sunday.”
“Thanks. We need your help. This is Liza Barkley. Liza, Detective Sutherland.”
“Pull up some chairs,” Olivia said and listened as Liza told her story, haltingly. Heartbreakingly. “It must have been hard to learn your sister was in the life.”
“I am so scared,” Liza whispered. “What if one of her… customers hurt her?”
Olivia weighed her words. “Liza, you seem too smart for me to try to sugarcoat this. Prostitutes have a high mortality rate. If she’s been missing for two days and she hasn’t called when she always did before, it’s not good. After two days, her trail may be cold.”
Liza had gone paler, if possible, but her chin went up. “Do you have a sister?”
“Yes, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer either if my sister was in trouble. Let me check for you. I’ll find out if she was arrested in a group and who posted her bail, but I want something in return. Your promise you will not go hunting at night.” Liza nodded dutifully. “You’re going to do it anyway, aren’t you?” Olivia asked.
Liza nodded and Olivia sighed.
“Olivia?” Tom asked and she knew what was coming.
“No. I’m not going with you.”
“Why not?” Tom asked. “Come on,” he wheedled, then shrugged. “Mia would.”
Olivia shook her head. “That is a low blow.”
“But effective,” he said.
“If I can, I’ll go with you. Once. But I want your promise, Liza.”
Liza nodded. “I promise.”
Tuesday, February 23, 5:30 p.m.
Tom took Liza’s bag and hailed another cab. “I’m taking you home.”
“What if I don’t want you to know where I live?”
“Too late. Your address was on the police report. I won’t leave the cab. I promise.”
Liza believed him. She was too tired not to. “I keep saying thank you.”
“Then don’t, just get in.” He followed her into the cab, gave the driver her address.
“You’ve helped me, when you didn’t need to.”
“When I was little, my father knocked my mother around. People helped us when they didn’t need to. I learned a long time ago to pay it forward. So stop thanking me.”
“Okay.” She fixed her gaze out the window and made herself accept the truth. “I think Lindsay’s dead. But I can’t give up looking for her.”
“I understand. What time did you start hunting last night?”
“My uncle’s in town and I’m meeting him for dinner. I can’t cancel because he’ll get suspicious and I don’t think he’d like me hunting hookers with you tonight.” He said it under his breath so the driver wouldn’t hear. “It’ll be eleven or twelve before I’m back in the dorm. Do not leave without me. I will come and get you in my car. Promise me.”
“What about your cop friend? Will Olivia tell?”
“Tell my uncle? No. I think they’ve only met each other once at a wedding, so, no.” He put another twenty in her bookbag. “Get some food. Promise me.”
“Tom.” Overwhelmed, she had to say it once more. “Thank you.”
Tuesday, February 23, 5:50 p.m.
Jack dropped a photo on Abbott’s desk. “We think we found him.”
Abbott picked up the photo of a clean-cut forty-four-year-old man. “Who is he?”
“His name is Axel Girard,” Noah said. “He’s an optometrist in Edina. His car followed Christy Lewis’s out of the waffle house lot on Monday.”
“Does he have a record?” Abbott asked.
“No,” Noah said. “Only one speeding ticket years ago. He’s a churchgoing man and was volunteer of the year for doing free eye exams in inner-city neighborhoods.”
Abbott sighed. “And our killer glues their eyes open.”
“Exactly,” Jack said and put down a series of time-stamped photos. “Security video shows him waiting in his car for over an hour. When Christy came out, she went to the gas station next door. He moved his car so that he was closer to the shared exit. Christy filled up her tank. She leaves, and a minute later, so does Girard.”
“You can’t see his face in any of these pics,” Abbott said.
Jack showed him a close-up of Girard’s Minnesota plate. “But we got his plate.”
“Then pick him up. I’ll get Ramsey from the DA’s office to observe. Good work, both of you.” Abbott sat back in his chair and studied Noah’s concerned face. “Isn’t it?”
Jack scowled. “Web thinks it was too easy.”
Noah shrugged. “For such a supposedly smart man, that was a really dumb move.”
“Pick him up,” Abbott said again. “Then we’ll see how smart he is. Noah, wait. We requested the files from Eve’s study a few hours ago. Tell her I’m sorry.”
Noah nodded. Her life was now officially changed once more. “Okay.”
Tuesday, February 23, 6:20 p.m.
“What’s the verdict?” Eve asked when David came in, blowing on his cold fingers.
“You’ve got holes in your roof,” he said dryly. “I patched the one over your bed and I’ll do the other tomorrow.” He perched on the arm of her stuffed chair. “Who is that?”
“Gary,” Eve said with a nod toward the avatar on her screen. Gary sat on a bar stool at Ninth Circle looking very out of place and very geeky.
“He’s not your usual style.”
He was totally vanilla, exactly as Eve had wanted. “He’s from the template.”
“Why?” David drew the syllable out, suspiciously.
“Because I saw that handsome avatar that was talking to Christy in Ninth Circle the night she was killed. He was back in Ninth Circle dancing with an avatar I don’t know.”
“And then you called Detective Webster, just like you promised.”
“I did, but got his voicemail.” She’d wanted to rush up to the woman dancing with the avatar and warn her. The woman was new, one of Eve’s own designs. But she didn’t warn her, and it was eating at her. Instead, she waited while Gary kept an eye out.
“So what’s up with Gary?”
“I don’t want Noah to get in trouble, but I wanted to visit Claudio. Claudio designed the male dancer, so I couldn’t go using one of my designs. He’d have spotted me right away and thought I was spying on his new spring line. Claudio is very paranoid.”
“Claudio is very pricey,” David said.
“Spendy. That’s what they say here. Tell me you didn’t buy from Claudio.”
“Nah, just went for ideas. I spend my Shadowbucks on cars. Really fast cars.”
She smiled at him, delighted. “You’re a racer?”
“Occasionally. I had to upgrade my computer system. The Monte Carlo expansion pack uses more RAM than my computer came with.”
“You should’ve gone with the poker expansion pack. No additional RAM needed.”
“But racing is cooler. Do you play in the casino?”
“Used to. Now I just watch. One of my red-zones lives at the poker table. Awhile back, I was the top winner for weeks. But racing is cooler.”
“So why’d you go see Claudio?”
“I thought I’d find out about that avatar, see who he’s sold it to.”
David looked skeptical. “He won’t tell you that, will he?”
“He did. Gary asked for references. Claudio felt sorry for Gary’s plainness, and was happy to help him upgrade, giving screen names of clients, two of which bought the dancer. I’ll give them to Noah. He needs to call soon. I have to work tonight.”
David frowned. “I don’t like the idea of you being alone.”
“I work in a bar full of cops. I’ll be fine. If you’re so worried, come with me.”
He shook his head. “I’m having dinner with Tom.”
Eve frowned. “Not fair. The only time I have the night off, he’s at a game.”
“Take the night off. It’ll be like old times.”
It sounded sweet. “I want to, but I can’t. I missed last night and I need the money.”
“Then I’ll drop you off and pick you up at Sal’s.”
“That’ll work. I think I’ll call Noah again. Sal’s gonna be pissed if I’m late.”
Tuesday, February 23, 6:45 p.m.
“This is a mistake.” Joan Girard followed as Noah and Jack escorted her husband from their nice Edina home, wringing her hands in helpless misery. “A huge mistake.”
“Of course it is.” Axel Girard tried to soothe his wife. “Call the lawyer, he’ll know what to do. Keep the boys calm. Tell them I’ll be home in time to read their bedtime stories.”
“Now that’s a fairy tale, pal,” Jack said caustically. “You shouldn’t lie to your kids like that. But then again, what’s a little lie after three murders?”
“I’m telling you I have no idea what you’re talking about. Joan, go back inside,” Girard said, his smile forced. He gestured toward their picture window with his head, where two terrified children cried as their father was taken away.
Jack wasn’t gentle as he helped Girard into the backseat. “Keep your hands where I can see them or I’ll have to cuff you in front of the kids. Come on, Web. Let’s go.”
“Wait.” Noah’s cell was vibrating for the third time in minutes. “I need to take this.”
“Fine. Just hurry.” Jack got behind the wheel, turning to watch Axel Girard.
Noah glanced at his caller ID. Eve. “What’s happened?”
“I tried to call you before,” Eve started.
“This isn’t a good time. Can I call you back?”
“No. I have some information and need to leave for work. I don’t think you want me to be talking about this in the bar. I found the male avatar. He’s in Ninth Circle.”
Still outside the car, Noah stared at the man in the backseat. “Right now?”
“Yeah. I’m lookin’ right at him.”
So am I, Noah thought, but his gut wasn’t right. “You’re sure it’s the same guy?”
“As sure as I can be. You told me not to approach him.”
“You mean you didn’t? Not even as Nemesis?”
“I didn’t want to get you into trouble. But I did get into the user files. The avatars were changed and I have the dates and times the codes were accessed. You ready?”
He pulled his pad from his pocket. I didn’t want to get you into trouble. Noah cursed himself for not having told her they’d requested the study files. He should have, but he hadn’t. You’re a coward. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
She rattled off times and dates, all within the last three days. “He didn’t access any of their files until after you discovered Martha’s body,” she said. “I don’t know why. I also have user names for you on the dancer. Don’t worry, nobody will know it was me.”
Noah wrote it all down. “This is incredible, Eve. Thank you.”
There was a half beat of silence. “What’s wrong, Noah?”
Everything, he wanted to say. Girard was sitting in the backseat, lips moving. Praying, Noah thought. Joan stood on their front porch, crying. Neither of them had been on the computer when they’d arrived. The family had been at the dinner table.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“Look, Noah, this guy is hitting on women in Ninth Circle left and right. If this is the guy, he could be hunting as we speak.”
But Girard was not hunting. “Yeah, I know. Do me a favor and call Abbott. Tell him about seeing the avatar. He can go online and monitor.”
“He knows how?”
“Ah, he’s a quick study. He figured it out. How are you getting to work tonight?”
“I have my car back, but David’s scared to let me drive alone, so he’s driving me.”
“Good for David. You got your keys back, then?”
“No. I looked, but didn’t find them. I’m still using the set Callie gave me last night.”
“I’ll see if CSU found them at the scene,” he said. He drew a breath. “Eve… we had to request the participant files from the university. I’m sorry.”
There was another beat of silence. “I knew you would. It’s not your fault, Noah.”
“I’m still sorry. I’ll stop by Sal’s later if I can.”
“That’s fine,” she said, but it was as if all the air had been forced from her lungs. She disconnected and he felt as if all the air had been forced from his lungs, as well.
Jack rolled down his window. “You okay?”
No. “Yeah. I’m coming.”
Tuesday, February 23, 7:55 p.m.
“Excuse me, Miss Wilson?” Eve looked up from the drink she was mixing to see a petite redhead perched on a bar stool, her hands folded primly on the bar. Eve had seen her before. She was Trina, married to Noah’s cousin Brock, who occasionally sat with Noah as he drank his tonic water. Trina sometimes came in with her girlfriends and they were pretty good tippers, but somehow Eve doubted Trina was here for a drink today. Eve knew when she was being scrutinized. And found wanting.
She smiled, despite the jitters in her stomach. “Chardonnay, right?”
Trina didn’t smile back. “Right, but I’m not here to drink tonight. I came to see you. What are your intentions regarding Noah?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You kissed him today in the Deli. Don’t look so surprised,” she added dryly. “You of all people should know how the rumor mill churns.”
“Cops and firefighters,” Eve murmured. “Nosy bastards. No offense intended.”
Humor flickered briefly in the woman’s brown eyes. “None taken. So?”
“I could say it’s none of your business,” Eve said.
Trina’s eyes narrowed. “But you won’t. I care about Noah. He’s a good man.”
“I know,” Eve said quietly.
“And for some reason he cares about you.”
“I know,” Eve repeated, brushing aside her irritation at for some reason. Trina was protecting her family. That Eve understood. “That kiss…” Didn’t mean anything, she wanted to say, but that was a lie. “Was a mistake. I’ve told Noah I’m not interested.”
“You kissed him, where everyone would see,” Trina said, her lips thinning in disapproval. “You never struck me as a tease, Eve.”
“I’m not a tease,” Eve responded, indignant. But several customers were watching, so she leaned forward. “Talk to Noah. It needs to come from him. It was for his job.”
Trina looked taken aback. “You’re helping him?” she asked.
“I’m trying. But you don’t need to worry. I don’t intend to cling when it’s all over.” Eve’s tone was harsh, sardonic. Because clinging was exactly what she wanted to do.
“I see,” Trina murmured. “You do realize that you can hurt him?”
Eve swallowed hard. “Yeah. I got that part. I’m doing my best not to.”
“And you’re not interested? At all?”
God, yes. “No,” she said. Firmly.
Trina sat back, all primness gone. “You’re as bad a liar as he is.”
Eve blinked at her. “Excuse me?”
Trina pulled a bowl of salted peanuts closer. “You want him. He wants you. He’s a good man. You seem to be a good person, too. So what’s the problem here?”
Eve shook her head. “Wait. You want me to want him?”
“I want you to cling like socks out of the dryer.” She popped a few nuts in her mouth while Eve stared. “He’s overcome a lot. From what I’ve read on the Internet, so have you. Two lost souls, both want each other… Color me a romantic, but it could work.”
Eve’s cheeks flamed. “It’s not that simple.”
Trina’s red brows rose. “Why not? You dying? Six months to live?”
Eve coughed. “No,” she said, stunned.
“Diseases? Witness protection? Secret husband? Undercover nun?”
Eve shook her head, feeling like she’d been run over by a very small truck. “No.”
“Do you like him?” Trina wagged her forefinger in warning. “And don’t you lie to me.”
“Yes,” Eve murmured. “Very much.”
“Good. Now we’re getting somewhere. So you like him, you want him, and there are no reasonable impediments to a relationship that I can see. Do you like roast beef?”
Eve had given up trying to keep up. “Yes.”
“Good. We eat Sundays at five.” She pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket.
Eve saw it held an address, neatly printed. “You planned to invite me all along?”
“Yes.” Trina smiled then. “Noah made me promise not to interfere, but I figured that kiss this morning nullified any promises previously rendered. I wanted to talk to you, find out if you were leading him on.” She sobered. “You’re not. Whatever’s bothering you is real. But time is precious and Noah’s wasted a lot of years. Figure out how to deal with whatever’s keeping you from ‘being interested.’ See you on Sunday.”
And with that she slid off the stool and left, leaving Eve staring after her.
Tuesday, February 23, 7:55 p.m.
“So all we have tying this guy to the murder is his car leaving a parking lot after one of the victims?” ADA Brian Ramsey frowned into the glass separating them from an ashen-faced Axel Girard. “Nothing more?”
“No,” Noah said. Either Girard was good or he was telling the truth.
“That’s not enough to at least hold him?” Jack demanded.
“Not unless you have something physical tying him to the victim or the scene.”
Jack huffed in frustration. “Dammit, Brian.”
“What about his alibi for Sunday night when the Lewis woman was killed?”
“His wife says he was with her,” Jack said sarcastically. “All night. Like we haven’t heard that before. Dammit, those pictures don’t lie. He was there.”
“His car was there,” Brian corrected. “That’s what the defense will claim.”
“He never reported it stolen,” Abbott said. “If the wife says he was with her all night, he couldn’t have been in the parking lot to begin with. Somebody’s lying and those pictures from the diner’s surveillance system are clear.”
“Crystal clear,” Jack added. “Wives always say their husbands were there all night.”
Brian grunted his agreement to that. “Noah, you’re being awfully quiet.”
Noah glanced at Jack, who was glaring at him. They’d had this conversation already and Jack was not a happy partner. Jack was also an uninformed partner. Noah hadn’t told him about Eve’s call. He’d started to a dozen times, but… hadn’t.
“I don’t think he did it, but I sure as hell don’t want to take the chance that I’m wrong. If he did it, I don’t want to give him opportunity to kill again.”
“What about his alibis for the nights the other two were killed?” Brian pressed.
“Ian’s time of death windows are wide on the other two,” Noah said. “As best we can pinpoint, Girard was home with his wife.”
“We passed out photos of the three victims at our press conference today,” Abbott said. “They’ll run on newscasts and in the papers. We’re hoping to find somebody who saw these women the night they were attacked.”
“That’s good, but that doesn’t help me right now,” Brian said.
Noah thought of the dates Eve had given him, when the killer had changed his victims’ avatars. If Girard had alibis for those times, other than his wife, he’d be cleared. But if he used the information Eve had given him, Ramsey would want to know where it came from and if it resulted in proving Girard’s guilt, they couldn’t use it anyway.
And Eve’s hacking would be exposed.
Noah blinked hard. Too little sleep and too much worry were fogging his brain.
“Noah?” Abbott prodded. “What are you thinking?”
Noah rubbed his temples, hard. “That we need more information. His car was there, but was he? And if he wasn’t, how did his car get there? He’s involved somehow, Brian. Can’t we keep him here until we figure out how?”
Brian shook his head. “Until you can place him at the scene, you can’t hold him.”
“Goddammit,” Jack spat. He glared at Noah. “You know he’s going to do it again.”
“I know he’s going to do it again,” Noah spat back, “but he might not be him.”
Brian shrugged. “Cut him loose, guys.”
“We’ll put an unmarked car on his house,” Abbott said. “That’s the best we can do for now. Get something physical to connect Girard. But first, take a break and cool off.”
“I don’t need a break,” Jack said, disgusted. “I’m going to the morgue. Maybe Ian’s finished with Samantha Altman by now. Maybe he’s found something physical.”
Noah winced when Jack shut the door too hard.
Brian Ramsey was looking at him with concern. “You okay, Web?”
“Too little sleep, too much coffee.” And too much worry. “Thanks for coming.”
Abbott looked distinctly unhappy. “I’ll cut Mr. Girard loose. Noah, go to my office.”
Feeling like a kid about to be scolded by the principal, Noah could only obey.
Ten minutes later Abbott closed his office door, a cup of coffee in each hand. “There’s a fine line between too much and not enough,” he said, handing him a cup.
“Too much and not enough what?” Noah asked and Abbott shrugged.
“You tell me,” he said, sitting in his chair. “And I mean that. You better tell me.”
Noah’s head nodded. His mouth, however, did not cooperate.
“Sometime today,” Abbott added sharply. “What’s going on between you and Jack?”
“Too much and not enough,” Noah muttered, then met his boss’s eyes. “Eve.”
Abbott looked unsurprised. “Are we talking turf war or cold war?”
Noah laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Both. Jack’s been after her for months.”
“Yeah, I knew that. I go to Sal’s. I’ve got eyes. And today Eve locks lips with you.”
Noah’s brows went up. “You know about that, too?”
“Yes,” Abbott said, clearly annoyed Noah would even ask the question. “I sent two uniforms to keep an eye out. Instead they got an eye full. What were you thinking?”
I wasn’t. For those few seconds he’d held her, Noah hadn’t thought about anything at all. Except that he’d wanted more. He still did.
“It wasn’t planned, Bruce. She’d been confronted by her advisor’s assistant and that asshole Buckland within the space of an hour. She was trying to keep her involvement… secret. Jack accused her of doing so to protect her job.”
“And wasn’t she?” Abbott asked, and Noah shook his head.
“No. She knows it’ll all come out eventually and she’ll lose her spot in the program.”
“There are other graduate programs.”
“She said she’d be blacklisted from those. Anyway, Jack apologized later, said he was basically jealous. Of me.”
“Yeah,” Abbott said, again unsurprised.
“Why do I get the impression that you know all and you’re just making me dance?”
“Being captain is more than nodding when you bring me information,” Abbott said testily. “I know my staff. Personalities have to work. Until this week, yours and Jack’s did.” His frown softened. “And you didn’t see your face last night when she was talking.”
“When?” Noah asked, feeling testy himself now.
“Every time she opened her mouth. Do I need to take you off this case?”
“No.” Noah drew a breath. “She called you about the male avatar, right?”
“She did. I’ve been following him off and on.” Abbott pointed to his screen. “He’s still there, doing the tango. And if he’s in there, Girard can’t be him. Is that it?”
“Partly, yes. And partly that it just doesn’t feel right, Bruce. After all he’s done to date, he drove his own car and let it be photographed by security cameras.”
“How could he have known he was being photographed?”
“Because there were about a hundred signs all over the goddamned parking lot,” Noah snapped, frustrated. “That was the point of the surveillance system. The two store owners wanted everybody to know they were on candid camera. That was the deterrent.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Plus, I just don’t think he did it, Bruce. I’ve been doing this job a long time and I don’t think he did it.”
“Jack’s been doing it a long time, too,” Abbott said quietly.
“Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think he informed me of that, several times?” Noah pushed his knuckles into his throbbing temples. “There’s more I couldn’t tell him.”
“Because you’re not supposed to know.”
Noah looked up. “Now you’re scaring me.”
“I figured this was bound to happen. Eve hacked into ShadowCo’s server. What did she find that we can’t legally use?”
“Times that the killer logged in and changed the avatars’ faces.”
Abbott’s eyes sparkled with interest. “Times that Axel Girard will need alibis for. Why didn’t you tell Jack?”
“Today Eve offered to go onto the university’s server to get us the test subjects’ files. She said she could do it faster. That’s when Jack accused her of trying to keep her job and said we couldn’t use the info anyway. About the second thing he was right. But a week ago? He would have grabbed those files as fast as she could have printed them.”
“Now you’re wondering how much of Jack’s sudden moral uprightness is true belief and how much is the fact Eve rejected him. And how much of your willingness to accept illegally gotten information is because you want to catch a killer versus being smitten.”
Noah sucked in one cheek. “God, you are scary good.”
“That’s why they pay me the medium-sized bucks. I’ll find out if we can get a warrant for Girard’s house and office, including the computers, based on what we know.”
“If he is guilty, he’ll wipe the evidence tonight. Or he’ll destroy it.”
“Then we’ll have to go the conventional route, request ShadowCo’s records, and hope that they cooperate.”
“Have they so far?”
Abbott shook his head. “We requested the victims’ files and they said that they are ‘committed to providing their users with a place where their anonymity remains secure.’ ”
“Sometimes you want to go where no one knows your name,” Noah said.
“Exactly. We’ll keep an eye on Mr. Girard tonight, then in the morning the two of you pay him a visit at work. Find out where he was at the times Eve said the killer changed the avatars. We can at least do that.”
Noah stood. “Did Olivia and Kane search that apartment next to Martha Brisbane’s?”
“They did. It was filled with bags of garbage. Some was Martha’s mail.”
“Because he made her clean the house.” Noah frowned. “Why would he do that?”
“Don’t know. I made sure Carleton knew, so he could incorporate it into his profile.”
“Were there any papers, documents showing her Shadowland movements?”
“So far no. Olivia and Kane have gone through about half of it. Micki had the carpet vacuumed and all surfaces dusted for prints, but if we find Kobrecki’s prints, they’ll just say he was doing maintenance. Micki will have a prelim report tomorrow morning.”
The thought of Micki reminded Noah he needed to ask if anyone had found Eve’s keys. One thought of Eve spurred another. “Eve had some screen name possibilities for that dancing avatar. She thought you might be able to use them in a warrant.”
“I already know his name. He’s Romeo62.”
Noah looked at Abbott’s screen. “What happened to your other guy?”
“Ditched him. Meet Lola.” Lola was a statuesque raven-haired stunner. “I’m trying to get Romeo to talk to me, ask him to meet me. My guy avatar was a definite liability.”
“Better for you to go undercover than Eve.” Who wanted to catch this guy for all the right-and wrong-reasons. Either way, Noah wanted her off the playing field.
“I thought so, too. If Girard’s innocent, we need to continue the Romeo lead. Work things out with Jack. I won’t have you working against each other. Are we clear?”
Tuesday, February 23, 8:45 p.m.
“Miss Wilson?” For the second time that evening Eve found herself summoned. A man stood at the bar, looking out of place in a suit. He was an infrequent customer, but she didn’t know his name and for the life of her, could not remember his drink.
She smiled her bartender smile. “Yes, how can I help you?”
“It’s more how I can help you. I’m Dr. Carleton Pierce. I’m a psychologist.”
Apprehension tickled the back of her neck. “Nice to meet you,” she said as he put a piece of paper on the bar. Immediately she recognized her own name. “My thesis abstract.”
“I work with Noah Webster. Today I heard an interesting story about a confidential informant. Web was adamant on keeping this person’s name secret. He’s worried I’ll turn him… or her… in. I wanted you to know that I don’t plan to.”
Eve’s exhale was controlled, her frown confused. “I’m sorry. I’m not following you.”
He smiled gently. “I’m really here to help you. It took me five minutes to locate your abstract in the university’s online library. Using Shadowland as a training tool has amazing therapeutic potential. But your study has attracted the attention of a dangerous man. I was there, yesterday, at your friend’s house. I was shaken. I still am.”
A chill raced down Eve’s back as she thought of Christy, hanging from that rope. Her eyes… “You’ll have to talk to Detective Webster, sir. He has all the information.”
“Because you gave it to him,” Pierce said kindly. “That was very brave, Eve. You could be facing disciplinary action for breaking double-blind, but I think I can stop that. I know Dr. Donner’s boss, Dean Jacoby. We’re old friends. I can smooth the way.”
She studied his face. “Why?” she asked baldly.
“You’ll need others throughout your career, Eve. We all do. Colleagues, experts. Mentors. You found yourself in an untenable situation and you did the right thing. I’d hate to see you penalized. You have a great career ahead of you. It would be a travesty for you to lose it all before you even begin.”
He took a business card from the pocket of his expensive suit and slid it across the bar. She stared at the card for a moment before putting it in her pocket. Then she met his eyes, remembering her manners. “Thank you. I’ll keep it in mind.”
He nodded once. “Good,” he said and turned to put on his coat and gloves.
“Dr. Pierce, does Detective Webster know you came?”
“No. But as I said, it took less than five minutes to connect the study with you. You will be found out, but I think you knew that before you came forward.”
“Yes, I did,” she murmured and in his eyes she saw respect.
“Call me when you’re ready for me to talk to the dean. But I wouldn’t wait too long.”
She toyed with the business card in her pocket as he walked away, then sucked in a breath when Sal appeared at her elbow. “Who was that?” Sal asked, frowning.
“Psychologist,” Eve answered. “Works with the Hat Squad. Interested in my thesis.”
“I see,” Sal said stiffly and Eve looked up at him. He looked angry and… hurt.
He’d eavesdropped. No surprise there. “Go ahead. What did you hear?”
“ ‘Disciplinary action.’ And last night you were with the Hats. What’s going on?”
Eve dropped her voice. “Sal, somehow my thesis project is being used to hurt people. I can’t tell you any more than that. I’m sorry.”
“All right,” he said in begrudging acceptance. “So what about disciplinary action?”
“The way I got information was… against the rules.”
He met her eyes and once more she felt the scrutiny of another. But this was different. This was Sal. “Would you do it again?” he asked quietly.
“In a heartbeat,” she said without hesitation. “Less than a heartbeat.”
“Good enough for me,” he said, then his eyes went sly. “So what about the kiss?”
Eve looked up at the ceiling, flustered. “Oh for God’s sake.”
“I knew it,” Sal said smugly, rubbing his hands together. “I won the pool.”
Eve stared at him. “There was a fucking pool?”
“Well, not a fucking pool.” Sal snickered. “Just a kissing pool.”
I should have known. She controlled the anger that rose, knowing it came from humiliation. “Well, I hope you won a bundle,” she said quietly and he sobered quickly.
“Only a beer,” he said. “Eve, what’s wrong?”
Everything. A business card she was afraid to use, directions to a dinner she was afraid to attend. A good man who wanted her when he shouldn’t. A man she wanted, but couldn’t have, who’d end up hurt when this was over. A career on life support before it began. And over it all, three dead women, a dangerous man, and the real possibility he could strike again. That he was hunting fish in the very barrel she’d stocked.
A sudden urge to weep grabbed at her throat and she took an unsteady step back. “Nothing. I’m fine. I just need a break. Can you mind the bar?”
Without waiting for his answer, she went back to his office, hearing his heavy sigh. “Goddammit,” he muttered, which Eve thought summed it up pretty well.
Tuesday, February 23, 9:00 p.m.
The worst of Jack’s anger had calmed by the time Noah got to the morgue. Ian had posted photographs of Samantha Altman’s decomposed body on his board.
“Anything?” Noah asked, scanning the photos.
“Same MO,” Jack said quietly. “Ket in her system, puncture wound on her neck.”
“And dirt,” Ian said, “in her mouth.”
“What?” Noah leaned forward to get a better look at the photos. “Where?”
“You can see it in between her back molars,” Ian said. “When the funeral home delivered the body, I asked them if they remembered anything different about this body.”
“And?” Jack asked.
“Samantha had a viewing, and it’s standard practice for them to put cotton in the deceased’s cheeks to keep them from hollowing. The funeral director told me when the cosmetologist was adjusting the cotton in Samantha’s cheeks, she saw dirt. She thought this was strange, but knew it was a suicide. They see all kinds of weirdness with suicides, just like we do. Some people eat dirt. We find it in their stomach contents.”
“Did you find dirt in Samantha’s stomach?” Noah asked.
“No, but I did find it other places. When I heard about dirt in her cheeks, I went back to all the samples Janice had taken in the first autopsy. I’d already submitted the blood samples she’d stored and they came back with the ketamine. Janice had scraped under the nails, just in case. Samantha had a lot of dirt under her nails, like she’d been digging in a garden. It’s potting soil.” Ian’s eyes narrowed as he watched their faces. “It makes sense to you,” he said grimly. “Tell me.”
“He buried her alive,” Noah said. “Her worst fear.”
Ian stared. “Is that what the snake was all about? And the water in Martha’s lungs, too? He’s torturing them with their worst fears? My God, this guy is a real prince.”
“And we just let him go,” Jack said without emotion.
Ian’s eyes grew wider. “You let him go?”
Noah shook his head. “No, we did not. Jack, we need to talk.”
“Yeah, we do. But this first. Was there dirt in her lungs, Ian?”
Ian hesitated. “Yes.”
Noah found himself hesitating as well. “Shouldn’t that have been caught in the autopsy the first time around?”
“Yes, it should have been. Janice missed it. I don’t know why, but she missed it.”
“If she’d found it,” Jack said, “we might have already been looking for a killer.”
Ian nodded, pain in his eyes. “I know. This is going to kill her. She’s a thorough ME. Maybe she was in a hurry, thinking it was a suicide. Maybe it was simple error. There wasn’t that much dirt, but she shouldn’t have missed it. I’ve informed my hierarchy and we’ll have an internal investigation. In the meantime, we have to live with the fact that we could have prevented two more deaths.”
“What was the official cause of death, Ian?” Noah asked. “Suffocation?”
“No, strangulation. I think she could breathe while buried. There are abrasions along her gumline.” He pointed to the photos of Samantha’s exposed teeth.
Noah pictured the options. “Snorkel?” he asked and Ian nodded.
“Probably. I think he took her out, cleaned her up, and hung her.”
“If she could breathe, how did the dirt get in her lungs?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know,” Ian said wearily. “Maybe he put dirt down the snorkel on purpose, maybe it was an accident.”
Noah didn’t want to think about it, either way. “Anything else?”
“No.” Ian began taking the photos down from the board. “I think that’s enough.”
Noah agreed. “We’ll be in touch. Thanks.” He waited until he and Jack were in the hall. “Come on. I’ll buy you a cup of decent coffee. We need to clear some things up.”
Jack nodded, still subdued. “All right.”
Tuesday, February 23, 9:30 p.m.
“Hello there, Eve.” Kurt Buckland slid onto a bar stool with a smug smile.
Eve gritted her teeth. She was getting damn sick and tired of visitors to the bar. “Mr. Buckland. Still stalking me, I see.”
“Now, Eve. I’m simply sitting here at the bar, waiting for service.”
“You’ll be waiting a long time.” She wanted to throw him out, but Sal was their muscle, and after the “fucking pool” conversation he’d gone AWOL.
“That was an interesting show you put on at the Deli this morning,” Buckland said.
She shrugged. “Believe what you want.”
“It must have been hard to keep that secret from your best friend. I thought it quite interesting that Callie so adamantly insisted you weren’t seeing anyone.”
Eve started wiping down the bar, ignoring him as best she could. She should have warned Callie, but honestly the thought hadn’t entered her mind. I’ve been a bit busy.
He slid a manila envelope across the bar. “Here are some pictures you should see.”
“No, thank you. I’ve already seen your pictures once today.”
“No, these are better. You’ll see your detective isn’t such a good guy after all.”
Shaking her head, she turned away. “I’m not playing your game, Buckland. Leave.”
He reached over the bar and grabbed her arm, his grip punishing. “I said, look.”
Fighting the instant panic that swelled within her, Eve calmly lifted her eyes to his and saw the crazed light of fury. “You are not a smart man, Kurt. This bar is filled with cops. I scream, and they drag you away in handcuffs. Take your hand off me. Now.”
His eyes flickered, as if he’d momentarily forgotten where he was. He let her go, lowering himself back to his stool. “I apologize,” he said stiffly.
Her pulse was still racing, but she kept her voice even. “I don’t accept. Please go.”
“Eve?” Regular Jeff Betz stepped up behind Buckland, hulking over him.
“I’m fine, Officer Betz. Mr. Buckland was just leaving.” She shoved the envelope over the bar and into Buckland’s hands. “Take this with you. I don’t want it.”
Buckland slid off the stool, the fire in his eyes now banked. “I’ll be in touch.”
When he was gone, she massaged her arm. It hurt worse than she wanted to let on.
“You’re not fine,” Jeff said. “You should get that looked at.”
Eve looked up at him, her smile wan. “I’ve had a lot worse.”
Jeff frowned, troubled. “Doesn’t make it okay. You call if he bothers you again. I’m off to pick up my wife. Have Sal walk you to your car when you leave, Eve.”
“I’ve got a ride, but tomorrow I will. Don’t worry. I don’t take chances.” Not anymore.
Tuesday, February 23, 9:30 p.m.
“Why didn’t you just tell me about Eve’s information?” Jack asked wearily.
They’d met at the Deli, but had taken their coffee and conversation back to the privacy of Noah’s car. “Because you haven’t been exactly approachable today.”
“I guess I deserve that. So what if it’s not Girard? What do we do next?”
“Well, right now Abbott’s moonlighting as a woman in Shadow-land’s bar, trying to attract this guy. Abbott is scarily convincing and, I think, having too much fun.”
Jack’s lips twitched. “Wish I’d stayed around to see that.”
Some of the tension dissipated. “If Girard is our guy, we’ve got surveillance tonight. Tomorrow we ask him to alibi the times Eve found the avatar files had been changed.”
“But even if he was home, or at work, or anywhere people can verify his presence, he still could have gone online and made the changes. He could have just pretended to check his email. Or he could have taken a bathroom break and taken his laptop to the john. If his home or office has wireless Internet, he didn’t even have to be at his desk.”
“But if he doesn’t alibi, we get a warrant for his computer and check online activities.”
Jack nodded. “Makes sense. If he does alibi, we’ll have to find something else to tie him to one of the crime scenes or the crimes in general.”
Bathroom break. Jeremy Lyons. Noah closed his eyes. His tired brain was making delayed, haphazard connections. In the heat of tracking Girard, they’d lost sight of the most obvious connection. “Like Eve’s list. Girard had to have had access to it. If he didn’t, we have to comb through the people that did. Like Jeremy Lyons, Eve’s advisor’s secretary. Who knows things like her worst fear.”
“Shit. Did you get any of those background checks back?”
“They weren’t on my desk. I’ll check tomorrow. Right now, I need to sleep.”
“You want me to drive you?” Jack asked, his tone kinder than it had been all day.
“No. I’ll be okay. But thanks.”
“Then I’m going home.” Opening the door, Jack hesitated. “Thanks for the coffee.”
But Jack didn’t move and Noah frowned. “Jack? Go home. Katie will be waiting.”
Jack’s lips twisted and when he spoke, it was with self-contempt. “If I’m lucky. She’s only there because I’m on the cover of a goddamn magazine. And everybody knows it.” He turned his head to look Noah in the eye. “Including you.”
It was true. Katie had latched on to Jack the day after the story had hit the stands, just another woman in what had been a long line over the years. Noah remembered Eve’s description of Jack. Alone in a crowded room. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I will apologize to Eve. But I didn’t know how else to apologize to you.”
Noah looked away, suddenly as emotionally overwhelmed as he’d been the night before when he’d called Brock. “We’re a fine pair, Jack. Both of us are going home to empty beds. Yours just has a warm body in it.”
Jack got out of Noah’s car. “And on that bright note, I’m going home.”
Noah had pulled out of the parking lot behind him when his cell vibrated. “Webster.”
“It’s Micki. I just got the message you left about Eve’s keys. We didn’t find them at the scene. We combed the entire area with a metal detector. They weren’t there.”
“Thanks, Mick. I appreciate you looking.” He hung up, worried. Eve’s keys should have been there, somewhere. Somebody had picked them up. Which meant somebody had free access to Eve’s apartment. And to Eve. He shivered, suddenly much colder.
He did an abrupt U-turn. At least he could fix that.
Tuesday, February 23, 10:15 p.m.
“Here you are.” He’d brought the evening cup of tea to the woman in his bed. It was a nice habit. The woman liked the tea and on the nights he went out, he added a little something more to put her right to sleep. He could come and go as he pleased and she’d never know. Then when she woke, he’d be sleeping beside her. Anything ever went wrong, instant alibi. There was beauty in simplicity.
“Thank you.” She took the cup, frowning when the cat at her side jumped from the bed to wind around his legs. “Ringo likes you better. Why does he like you better? I’m the one who brought him in from the snow.”
Because I put him there, knowing you’d bring him in. Ringo the cat had belonged to Martha Brisbane but had curled happily in his lap as he’d made Martha clean her hovel at gunpoint. It had given Martha great pain to watch her cat bond with the man who’d promised to kill her. Who’d followed through on that very promise.
He’d decided to keep Martha’s cat. It was a memento he could enjoy in front of everyone. Visitors would pet the cat and only he would know from whence it had come. Letting the woman believe the cat rescue was her idea ensured her compliance without threat. He liked to save his threats for important things. He’d only had to strike her once and she’d learned quickly. But there were other, better ways of keeping a woman in line.
“Must be the liver on my hands,” he said with a smile. Or the blood. Metaphorically speaking, of course. He’d have more metaphorical blood on his hands very soon.
“Must be,” she said, still frowning at the cat. She sniffled a little. “Well, at least I can breathe when he’s with you. I think I have an allergy.”
Which was why she’d never choose a pet on her own. Not unless you counted as pets the snakes she kept in test aquariums in her research lab. And he did not. A snake was not a pet. A snake was a weapon of terror. Just ask Christy Lewis.
“I have work to do,” he said. “Drink your tea. And don’t wait up.”
Tuesday, February 23, 11:00 p.m.
On her knees counting beer bottles in boxes, Eve did the evening inventory with a disgruntled sigh. “Sal, I wish you’d talked to me before you did that booze run. We’re almost out of vodka.” They went through an amazing amount of vodka. Most of the cops she’d met came to the bar to drink. A lot.
Except for Noah, a recovering alcoholic who’d ordered tonic water for a year… So he could watch me. It should have made her uncomfortable. Instead, it hurt. A lot.
Sal’s shoes stopped next to her and she realized she was staring into the box, the heel of her hand pressed to her chest. “What’s wrong, Eve?” he asked quietly.
Everything. “Just tired,” she said, sitting back on her heels so she could see him.
Concern creased his forehead. “Go home. We’re light tonight. I’ll do inventory.”
Only three customers lingered, but David had called to say he was running late. “My ride’s not here yet, so I might as well finish. But thanks.”
“Jeff told me what happened, with that reporter. You have to be more careful.”
Her wrist still hurt from Buckland’s grip. “Sure. Like it’s my fault,” she muttered.
“I never said that,” he snapped. “Stand up. I can’t get down there to argue with you.”
Automatically she stood. Sal’s bad leg didn’t bend well. “I don’t want to argue with you,” she started, then stopped when he brought a bottle of wine from behind his back. She frowned at the label. “Nonalcoholic? What’s this?”
“Peace offering. I’m sorry about the pool, Eve. I don’t know why it hurt you, but it did, and I would never hurt you on purpose. Can’t you tell me what’s really wrong?”
Her eyes stung. This man had given her so much, so many chances. “Sal…” She looked away. “Did you ever want something so badly and know you could never have it? Something that everybody else has and you can only dream about?”
“Every damn day,” he said quietly and she looked at his leg before meeting his eyes.
He was surrounded every day by men and women living his dream and he served them, always with a smile. “I guess you do.” Hastily she scrubbed her wet cheeks.
“Honey, what do you want so badly that you think you can’t have?”
She lifted a shoulder. “Just to be normal, I guess.”
“We both know that’s a total bullshit answer. But you’ll tell me when you’re ready.” He put the bottle in her hands. “Forgiven?”
She kissed his cheek. “Of course. Thank you. I have a houseguest. We’ll enjoy this.”
“Uh… no,” he said. “It’s for you to take to Trina’s on Sunday. Web can have this.”
She looked at the nonalcoholic label, then back up at Sal. “You knew about Noah?”
“Of course. Back when he was in the academy he’d come in here, all swagger and bravado, just like all the young guys do. But after his wife’s funeral he changed, fell way down the rabbit hole. He climbed out, though, and didn’t come back here, for years.”
Eve’s breath caught in her throat. His wife’s funeral. Now she understood. Grief had driven him into the bottle. She wondered what had brought him out. Poor Noah.
“How many years?” she whispered.
“Nine or ten, at least. Then last year somebody retires, one of Web’s friends. He darkens my doorstep for the first time in years, doesn’t even take off his coat.”
Eve remembered it well. It had been the first time she’d seen Noah come through Sal’s door. He’d sat alone, the party going on around him, a tonic water in his hand.
Sal lifted her chin with his finger. “He stared at you all night. Didn’t think a soul noticed him, but I did. Anybody that pays attention to you has to go through me and Josie. But I knew Web. He’s a good man. And I was happy he was finally coming out of that cocoon he wrapped around himself when his wife died. Don’t close your doors so quickly, Eve. You’ve made so much progress since you first came here, don’t let it stop with the outside.” He touched the tip of his finger to the scar on her cheek.
She sniffled. “I guess I’m lucky you’re not a mean boss.”
“So you’ll take the bottle to Trina’s?”
No, she thought sadly, but she made herself smile at him. “Sure.”
He didn’t smile back. “Trina’s right. You are a lousy liar.”
She was saved a reply by the jingling of the door. Automatically she turned. Stopped. And stared as Noah came through the door. Her chest went so tight she could barely breathe and she drank in the sight of him, greedily, desperately, too tired to try to hide it. It didn’t matter. Everyone seemed to have known anyway.
Noah pushed the door closed and for five painful beats of her heart he looked at her.
She felt the bottle being taken from her numb hands. “Speak of the devil,” Sal said quietly. “I’ll just go in the back.”
Noah took off his hat and she could see the flash of his eyes. He was angry. Oh, no, she thought, panic rising in her throat. Not another one. Not another dead woman. Crossing the room, he tossed his hat to the bar without a glance.
Then before she could draw a breath to speak, his hands framed her face and his mouth was on hers, hot and hungry and she couldn’t breathe at all. He ended it as abruptly as he’d begun, pulling back far enough to see her eyes. “That was real,” he said, his voice low and rough. “And that wasn’t for my job. That was for me.”
She stared up at him, stunned, her breath coming in short pants.
“And for you,” he added quietly. “Especially for you.” He took his hands from her face and she realized she gripped the lapels of his overcoat. Her right fist throbbed, but she didn’t let go. Wasn’t sure she could.
He pried her right hand from his coat, pushed her sleeve past her wrist. His face darkened. “Buckland put his hands on you. He bruised you.”
Her heart beat like a rabid hummingbird and her knees were still weak as she saw the dark bruises that had formed from Kurt Buck-land’s fingers. “How did you know?”
“Jeff Betz called me when he left to pick up his wife. He’d heard about this morning, figured I’d want to know about tonight. Would you have told me, Eve?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “He grabbed me because I wouldn’t look at some pictures he had in an envelope. He said I’d see you weren’t such a ‘good guy.’ ”
“What were the pictures?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t look. He got mad and Jeff made him leave. He was scary, like he was wound too tight and the rubber band broke.”
His lips twitched, surprising her. “Is that your clinical diagnosis?”
She didn’t smile. “He’s dangerous, Noah. You need to be careful.”
His eyes narrowed and she knew he was still angry despite the little injection of humor. Deliberately he looked at the wrist he still held with gentle fingers. “Just me?”
Her knees steadier now, she tugged her wrist free and took a step back. “Okay, both of us. He didn’t look quite sane for a minute.” She touched the tip of her tongue to her lip. It was still tingling, distracting her from the memory of Kurt Buckland lunging over the bar. That wasn’t for my job. “Jeff also told you that Trina was here.”
“Yeah. He… overheard,” he said and Eve rolled her eyes.
“He eavesdropped on a private conversation. You cops are so nosy.”
“If we weren’t nosy we wouldn’t catch many bad guys. And you should know there is no such thing as a private conversation here. Did Buckland hurt your hand?”
“No, just the bruise on my wrist.”
“You’re going to press charges in case you need a TRO against this sonofabitch.”
She knew he was right. “All right. So if you know about Trina and Buckland, you also know Dr. Pierce was here.”
He winced at that. “I’m sorry. I tried to keep you out of it. I should have known Carleton wouldn’t let it ride. He thought he could help you. I was going to tell you about him and let you make the decision, but I guess that’s water under the bridge now.”
“I guess so. He could be right. He might be able to help me.”
She moved her shoulders. “I’m not comfortable with that kind of help.” She turned away from him, kneeling back down by the beer box, discomfited when he crouched beside her. He was big and warm and she wanted him to kiss her again far too much. “No other victims, right? I was worried when I saw you that you’d found another.”
“No. No more victims that I know of.”
“Good. I’ve got to do inventory before my ride comes. Go get some rest.”
“Eve.” She didn’t look up so he gently grasped her chin and forced her to look at him. “Your ride is right here. Leave that till tomorrow. I’ll take you home.” His mouth bent in an awkward smile she wished she didn’t find so endearing. “Hunter drove up when I did. He had a crowd in his truck. Looked like an entire college basketball team.”
“He and Tom must have found a pickup game somewhere. Tom’s his nephew. He’s a home team star,” she added, unashamed of the unabashed pride in her voice.
“Tom Hunter. I’ve seen him play. The kid is really good. You know him?”
Eve’s brows lifted at his hopeful tone. “You want me to get you tickets, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t say no.” He smiled when she chuckled. “Really, how do you know him?”
She sobered. “Yesterday you asked why that man tried to kill me six years ago.”
His smile disappeared. “You said he wanted to get to his wife and son. Oh.” He’d made the connection, she could see. “Tom was his son.”
“Yes. Tom and I both lived in the same shelter for a while, so we kind of grew up together. After Tom’s father was caught, his mother ended up marrying David’s brother. The Hunters are family. Tom’s the reason I picked Minneapolis.”
His dark brows crunched slightly. “You picked it?”
“I’d finally decided I couldn’t stay in Chicago. I had a quarter in my hand and a map on the table. Heads Carolina, tails California. Then the phone rang. Tom had just been offered a basketball scholarship here in Minneapolis. So I decided to come with him.”
“Then I’m even happier he’s there,” he murmured, meeting her eyes directly.
Flustered, she looked back into her box. “Where is David?”
“He said he had to drive the guys back to their dorm, but he didn’t want you to have to wait so he said they’d have to squeeze you in. I told him I’d take you home.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a plastic bag. “Peace offering.”
“I seem to be getting a lot of these tonight.” She peeked inside. “A deadbolt?”
He frowned slightly. “CSU didn’t find your keys. Somebody could have picked them up. I’ll change your lock for you.”
Eve was suddenly cold. “I didn’t leave my door unlocked yesterday, did I?”
His eyes flickered and she knew he agreed. “I don’t know, but I’d rather be careful.”
“Buckland was at the scene last night. He took pictures of my car.”
Noah’s eyes narrowed. “You think he has your keys?”
“It’s possible, isn’t it?”
His lips thinned. “Probable even.” Then he stood and pulled her to her feet, his eyes dangerous. “Let me take you home. I’ll replace your lock before I leave.”
Wednesday, February 24, 12:15 a.m.
Eve’s cell phone vibrated on the arm of her stuffed chair. It was David, which meant he was at her front door. She’d called to tell him that Noah changed the lock, resulting in a string of harsh profanity toward Buckland. She opened the door. “Sshh,” she cautioned.
She waved him to follow her to the kitchen, tiptoeing past Noah, who sat sprawled on her sofa. “He fell asleep,” she whispered. “I fixed him something to eat while he replaced the deadbolt, but he was out cold. I think he’s just exhausted.”
“He must be, to have fallen asleep on that thing. I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”
“Go sleep in my bed. I’ll take the sofa when he wakes up and goes home.”
“Sleep in your own bed.” He held open the shopping bag. “Blow-up mattress.”
She shook her head. “It’ll make too much noise when you inflate it. You’ll wake him up.”
“He can’t have been asleep that long. Wake him up and send him home.”
It would be the logical thing to do. But she shook her head again. “Let him sleep. You take my bed.” In the living room, Noah hadn’t budged an inch. He’d taken off his overcoat and suit coat to replace her lock, but still wore his shoes, his tie. And his gun.
He’ll get a crick in his neck sprawled like that. She tugged on his feet, staggering under the weight of his long legs as she lifted them to the sofa. If he woke, so be it. But he didn’t, not even when she took off his shoes and loosened his tie.
She should move, but stayed crouched at his side, looking into his face. Her eyes dropped to his mouth. She’d kissed that mouth. In the Deli she’d told herself it was for his job. Damage control. But she’d wanted to kiss him. She’d wanted to for months.
She relived that moment in the bar when he’d kissed her for himself. She’d wanted him to do it again, but he hadn’t. He’d brought her home and kept his hands to himself. She looked at his hands, wondered how they’d feel, cruising over her skin.
After a year of look, don’t touch this might be her only opportunity to do either. Or both. Experimentally she trailed her fingertips across the line of his jaw, hard and unyielding even in sleep. His dark stubble was rough, prickly. She skimmed his lips with one finger. Soft. They’d been hard earlier, when he’d kissed her in the bar.
When he didn’t stir she became bolder, brushing the back of her fingers over his cheek, pushing his hair from his forehead, running her thumb over the ridge of his brow. He was, quite simply, beautiful. She smiled wryly, fairly certain he wouldn’t like that.
She pulled her hand back before she gave in to the temptation to explore further.
“Don’t stop.” He opened his eyes, held hers.
She froze. “I… I thought you were asleep.”
“I was. Now I’m not.” He took her hand, held it as if it were fragile glass as he pressed his lips to her wrist where her pulse hammered. Carefully he tugged, pulling her to him, his other hand threading through her hair.
Yes. Please. “No.” She lurched to her feet and he let her go. Lying flat on his back, he looked up at her, his eyes asking the question his voice did not. Closing her eyes, she pursed the side of her mouth that obeyed. “I don’t have to explain to you.”
“No. No, you don’t have to.” He sat up. “Look at me, Eve.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, ashamed for herself and sad for them both.
He shook his head. “There’s no need to be sorry. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I was just checking on my red-zones.”
He patted the cushion next to him. “Then show me. I need to understand them.”
Come on, Eve, Noah thought. Give me this much. He waited, exhaling silently when she picked up her computer and sat next to him, taking care not to touch him.
But she had, and it was all he’d been able to do to keep from rolling her beneath him and taking what he craved. Thankfully he’d held himself in check. Eve had always made him think of a doe, nervous and ready to flee. Tonight, she was more so than ever. But she’d ventured closer. That has to be good enough for now.
Beside him, she drew a breath and pushed her laptop screen back so he could see. “I’m using Greer tonight, checking out Ninth Circle for three of my red-zones.”
Her scent filled his head and he tried to focus. “Three? Aren’t there five?”
“Yes, but Rachel will be dancing at the casino.” She said it as a professor might lecture. “Natalie is always there, playing poker. We’ll go there when I’m done. There’s the dancer who was with Christy.”
He choked back a cough. The male avatar was dancing with Lola, Abbott’s raven-haired siren. Noah slid his arm across the back of the sofa. “What are they dancing?”
She glanced pointedly over her shoulder at his arm. He wasn’t touching her, but he was in her space. But she didn’t protest and he let himself relax a little. “Salsa,” she said levelly. “It’s not as easy it looks. You execute the dance steps with a series of keystrokes. It’s fast and complex and my right hand still isn’t dexterous enough.”
If that made her wistful, it didn’t show in her voice. Nothing showed in her voice, which had him increasingly frustrated. Over the next twenty minutes, Greer located three of Eve’s five remaining red-zones. She pointed them out, and in that same professorial tone she told him everything she knew about them. She knew quite a lot actually, likes, dislikes, what they searched for in the virtual world.
“This one is Kathy,” Eve said. “In Shadowland, she’s a real estate tycoon. IRL, she’s a retired real estate agent. She’s thirty-eight years old.”
IRL meant in real life, he recalled. “She’s retired at thirty-eight? Why?”
“Kathy has a degenerative muscle disease. She’s been in a wheelchair for a year now and it’ll just get worse.” She swallowed hard. “She told me when she came into Pandora’s to buy her avatar. When she’s not making deals, she plays virtual tennis. She continues the life she had in the real world, here. I didn’t know she was one of my test subjects until I hacked the list, right after Martha disappeared.”
“Bittersweet,” he murmured. “She can do what she loves, but it’s all pretend.”
“Sometimes that has to be enough,” she murmured, then looked up at him, her expression suddenly anxious. “Noah, she can’t defend herself. If he comes after her…”
He frowned at the screen. “Does she live with anybody?”
“No. She lives alone with a service dog. A nurse checks in on her once a day.”
“So she can’t leave her house to meet him? That’s been his MO.”
“No, she’s homebound. So she’s safe, right?”
“I’ll have a cruiser do drive-bys and when I leave here, I’ll check on her myself.” He called Abbott’s cell, knowing he was still awake, and made the request. “It’s done.”
“Thank you,” she said. Then she pulled away. “All red-zones are accounted for.”
Frustrated, he kept his voice level. “So we’re off to the casino?”
“Yes. Finding the last two won’t take long.”
Which was a shame. He wanted this time with her. Needed it. “Then let’s go.”
Greer was winding through the crowd when a message popped up at the base of the screen. Can I buy you a drink tonight?
“Him again. I swear, he hits on Greer every night.” Sorry, I’m calling it an early night, she typed back. Try that black-haired dancer over there. She’s been doing the salsa for a while. I bet she’s thirsty.
I tried her. She was rude, too.
“I feel sorry for him,” she said softly. “He’s just hoping for some attention.” I’m sorry, she typed. I didn’t mean to be rude.
Then let me buy you a drink.
Look, I’m in a hurry tonight. How about a rain check? Next time, for sure.
The avatar’s face beamed. I’ll hold you to it.
“Will you let him buy you a drink next time?” Noah asked.
“I don’t make promises I don’t keep.” She sent Greer to the casino and turned up the volume. He was suddenly struck by the feel of a real Vegas casino. Noise and activity… and anticipation. Greer stopped at a poker table. “That’s Natalie.”
A voluptuous redhead sat at a poker table and from the stack of chips in front of her, was doing very well. Eve paused for a moment to watch.
“Do you play?” Noah asked. “I mean as an avatar.”
She smiled, faintly. “Used to, but I don’t have time anymore. A few years ago, I was the one to beat. Or my Moira avatar was. She was the grand poker champion.”
She picked names for a reason, he knew. “Moira. What does it mean?”
“It’s a little twist on Moirae. The Three Fates in Greek mythology.”
“Hm.” He was quiet for a moment. Fate, not luck or skill. “So you do believe in fate?”
“I wish I did,” she said without inflection. “Things would be so much simpler.”
“Did you ever play poker IRL?” he asked wryly.
“A little five-card stud with friends, never for money. But Moira made a lot of money.”
He fidgeted, her sofa poking him. “I hope she spent hers on a comfy sofa.”
“No, she cashed out, and I converted Moira’s Shadowbucks into real-world money.”
“Which you did not spend on a comfy sofa.”
She shook her head, totally serious. “I bought my freedom. A car that got me away from Chicago, first and last month’s rent on this place. The rest I used to pay my first semester’s tuition. After that it was touch and go, but thanks to Sal, I manage all right.”
Noah thought of the last year, when she’d thought no one was watching. “You give your money away,” he said, his throat suddenly tight. “I’ve seen you,” he insisted when she looked like she would deny it. “I’ve seen you take dollars from your tip jar and give them away. To two women.” The same two women, he realized. “Who are they?”
“They operate a women’s shelter. When they need a little to tide them over…”
“You give it to them.” He swallowed hard. “You are a very generous woman.”
She looked up then, her dark eyes intense. “Fate is simply circumstance, Noah. The circumstance of birth, of ability, of events. Choice is what you do with it. I may not believe in fate,” she said, “but I do believe in choice. And I believe in giving back.”
People need purpose, she’d told him. But people also need lives, he thought, and I’ve been without one too long. And so had Eve. He was trying to think of a way to say that without seeming self-serving when a stir at the poker table broke the moment.
She turned back to her screen as a chorus of boos erupted. Crowd favorite Natalie had lost big. Raking in the chips was a male avatar, very dashing. “Who is that?”
She scowled. “Dasich. He fancies himself quite a card shark. He cheats.”
“How do you know?”
“He wins too often and too well. I think he has a confederate at the table. But being in the virtual world, that’s hard to prove.”
“He looks like one of your designs. Very handsome.”
“He is, and he proves what I’ve always known. Bad people rarely look bad. If bad people look sleazy, good people don’t trust them. Cops like you catch them more easily. But if bad people look normal, honest…”
“Trustworthy?” he asked, and she nodded.
“Yeah. Then they’re able to worm their way in, find the vulnerability, exploit it.”
He wondered if she knew how hard her voice had become. Brittle. “And I?” he asked. “Am I one of those people looking to exploit your vulnerability?”
She glanced up, her eyes now guarded. “Yes. Not for nefarious reasons, but you have an agenda.” She smiled, attempting to soften her words. “You’ve been alone too long, and you want someone again. For some reason, you’ve decided that’s me.”
She had a way of boiling things down to the bottom line. “But?” he asked, sharply.
“It can’t be me,” she said simply, then pointed at the screen. “Natalie’s avatar is pissed off and filing a grievance against Dasich. Not much chance of justice, but at least she’s here and not meeting a serial killer somewhere. One more red-zone to go and we’re done for the night. Rachel Ward, where are you?”
Noah knew she’d tried to let him down gently, as she had the lonely avatar who kept trying to buy her a drink. He also knew he should take the hint and walk away. But he’d seen the loneliness in her eyes, too, and he wasn’t giving up just yet.
She sent Greer to a stage in a dark corner where dancers writhed more erotically than animated characters should. “Rachel’s Delilah should be dancing tonight.”
Eve’s face became troubled as she searched the area. “But she’s not,” he said.
“No, but the night’s still young. Rachel might just be late.”
“So what do we do?” Noah asked.
“I’ll wait and watch. I’m sure you have other things to do.”
Noah leaned back, got as comfortable as her sofa allowed. “I’ve got time.”
She looked up at him, frowning in frustration. “You’re not taking a hint, are you?”
He tried for smooth even though his heart pounded. “No. Are you throwing me out?”
Something moved in her eyes. “I made you a sandwich earlier. It’s in the fridge.”
He let out the breath he’d been holding. “I could eat.”
She sighed. “You want some tonic water with that?”
“I hate tonic water.”
“You-?” She shook her head. “Then cola or juice or milk?”
He stood when she did. “Milk. And let’s be quiet so we don’t disturb your guest.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You sneak. You just pretended to be asleep the whole time.”
He smiled, but grimly. “Like you said, I have an agenda. Let’s eat.”
Wednesday, February 24, 12:45 a.m.
“Your sister was arrested with a prostitute named Belle,” Olivia had said when she’d picked Liza and Tom up. They found Belle pretty easily in one of the bars Liza hadn’t been allowed to enter the night before.
“Detective Olivia,” Belle said. “How the hell are you?”
“Wishing I weren’t seeing you here,” Olivia said, but kindly. “I’m looking for the woman in this picture. Her name is Lindsay Barkley. Do you know her?”
“Yeah, I know her. We call her Little Red, on account of her hair.”
“So have you seen her?” Olivia asked. “She hasn’t been home lately.”
Belle thought. “Not since the weekend. She was working the Hay.”
The Hay Hotel, Liza thought. “I checked there last night. Nobody’s seen her. Please, anything you can think of.”
Belle’s face was sympathetic. “You might try Jonesy. He’s been watchin’.”
“Why?” Olivia said, narrowing her eyes. “Why’s he watching? And who?”
“I s’pose he has his reasons. That’s all I know. I’d tell you if I knew. I would.”
“Who is Jonesy?” Liza asked when they were back in Olivia’s car.
“Minor dealer. Don’t go looking. I’ll ask my pals in narcotics if they know him.”
“All right,” Liza said. “I’ve got to sleep tonight. Can you call me tomorrow?”
“If I know something, I will.”
Wednesday, February 24, 12:50 a.m.
Rachel Ward noted with bleary-eyed annoyance that her glass had become empty. “Another, please. Vodka, straight up.”
The bartender shook his head. “Last call was five minutes ago. I’ll call you a cab.”
She glared at the man, then dropped her eyes to glare at her empty glass. She’d lost count of how many she’d had while waiting for that sonofabitch John. He’d stood her up. Got her worked up into a froth, then had stood her up.
“No, I have a ride.” She pushed away from the bar, teetering in her high heels. It had been a long time since she’d worn heels. Five years. The same amount of time since she’d been to a bar. Or had sex. That hadn’t ended so well, either.
She thought of Bernie, rotting in his cell, and felt a pang of regret mixed with anger. If he hadn’t gone and fucked everything up… He’d had affairs on the road, she knew he did. She’d found countless matchbooks from truck stops and condom wrappers in his pockets. He’d never even denied it. Patted me on the head and said men had needs.
It still made her blood boil. And he’d expected her to be some little nun, just waiting for her man to roll out of his rig into her bed every two weeks? That hadn’t been what she’d signed up for when she’d married him. He wasn’t the man she’d thought he was.
That he’d been so stunned at her affairs had been a shock to her. That he’d been so angry made her furious. That he’d been capable of such brutality still horrified her, down to her bones. And that people had died in the fire Bernie set was something she still hadn’t been able to forget. She could still hear their screams in her nightmares.
She’d been good for five years. Done penance. Gone to church. Tonight was supposed to be a little… reward. Time off for good behavior. But once again, she’d picked wrong. John seemed so nice online. So honest. And as horny as she was.
But he’d stood her up. Maybe he came in, but didn’t like what he saw and left. She knew the years had not been good to her. In the last five years she’d aged twenty. John had seemed straight. A businessman who was in town for one night and only wanted sex. No ties, no relationship for Bernie to find out about.
Because Bernie would find out if she got a boyfriend. He had ways. She knew he kept tabs on her, even from the state pen. His letters contained sly references to her routine, to any promotions at work. To the flu she’d just gotten over. Anything to let her know he watched her, that he hadn’t forgiven her.
Discovering Shadowland had been the best damn thing that ever happened to her. She could be herself, not worry about what anybody told Bernie. She could fuck twenty guys in a night online and nobody would ever know. Sometimes you wanna go where no one knows your name. Ain’t that the truth. Looked like that was where she’d end up tonight. I should stop for batteries on my way home, she thought glumly.
She searched for her keys, then looked up to find the bartender giving her a pitying look. Smug bastard. “First sobriety test, ma’am. You gave me your keys when you sat down. That you forgot is a good sign that you shouldn’t be driving. I’ll call you a cab.”
She knew better than to argue. She also knew she needed her car to get to work in the morning. She had a key hidden under her car. “Fine. But I’ll need my house keys.”
“All right.” He fished her keys from a bowl, then dropped her key ring on the floor. When he bent to retrieve it, she saw opportunity and deftly grabbed one of the bottles he’d clustered on the bar as he did inventory and put it under her coat.
Second sobriety test, she thought smugly. If the customer can steal from you, they’re not that drunk. Besides, the extra booze would help her sleep. She’d planned to have a man in her bed for the first time in five years. Sleeping alone wouldn’t be fun.
The bartender wrestled with her key ring. “Here’s your house keys.”
She took them with a level nod. “Thanks. I’ll wait outside for my cab.”
“It’s five degrees outside, ma’am.”
“I know. I need the air. Have a good night.”
Wednesday, February 24, 1:02 a.m.
Rachel hadn’t wanted to meet in a coffee shop. She hadn’t been out on a date in five years, she’d said when they’d made the arrangements online. She’d suggested this bar and it was fine by him. The cameras in their parking lot hadn’t worked in years and it was a house of rather ill repute where patrons liked their privacy, so anybody coming here was unlikely to talk about anyone they’d seen waiting here.
He’d gotten a good bit of work done, as he’d been waiting for quite a while. Rachel Ward had outlasted all of his previous victims at nearly two hours and holding. But it was last call, so she’d be stumbling out soon.
And there she was. He frowned. She appeared to be drunk. He hoped she made it home. Having her pulled over for a DUI would be enormously inconvenient, especially as he’d gone to the trouble of readying her house for the evening.
Rachel stumbled across the parking lot in a pair of very high heels. He loved to see women in heels, the higher the better. It kept them hobbled and, he hoped, in pain. She stooped to fish a spare key from beneath her car, got in, and pulled onto the highway.
A minute later, he followed.
Wednesday, February 24, 1:40 a.m.
“Is Rachel there yet?” Noah asked and Eve looked up from the files she’d been reviewing to check her laptop screen.
“No.” Rachel’s avatar was still AWOL from the stage and Natalie was winning again now that Dasich had quit for the evening. “And she should be.”
“I’ll send a cruiser to her house,” he said. “Give me her address.”
Eve found it on the participant list. “And if she’s not home?”
His eyes sharpened. “Then we assume he’ll be following her home. I’ll assemble a team and we’ll be waiting to take him down.” He made the call to Dispatch, then returned to the stack of graphs he’d been plodding through a page at a time. “Are you finding anything here? Because I’m not, except that grad students generate a lot of data.”
After devouring a sandwich, he’d asked to see the logs Eve kept of her subjects’ Shadowland play time. They’d been sitting on her sofa, poring over data for an hour. Eve stifled a yawn. “You can take this with you. You don’t have to read them here. Just call me when you get word on Rachel.”
He frowned, surprised. “You don’t have to stay up. Go to bed if you’re tired.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re sitting on my bed.”
He looked incredulous. “You were planning to sleep on this torture device?”
“I have one bed and David’s in it. Which you knew because you were awake.”
“This is a two-bedroom apartment. What’s in the other bedroom?”
“Boxes full of more data. I’m sorry, Noah, but you can’t stay here tonight.”
“Where were you going to sleep when you thought I was sleeping?”
“In my chair. Look, you were supposed to change my deadbolt, then leave. No offense intended and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m in no danger. David put in a new security system this afternoon and he’s here with me. And I have my gun. Besides, you promised you’d check on Kathy, the lady in the wheelchair, and Rachel.”
“A cruiser went by Kathy’s house and could see her through her front window. She was on her computer, totally alive and safe.”
“How do you know? Nobody called you.”
“Abbott texted me. But I did promise, so I will check on her and Rachel on my way home, even if the cruisers say everything is normal.” He lifted a brow. “I also don’t make promises I don’t keep.”
“Point taken. But you never said you would leave.”
“I’ll move to the chair so you can stretch out.” He moved himself and the files to her chair and sat with a satisfied sigh. “Much more comfortable. Give me your gun.”
“So I can check it out. When did you last fire it?”
“Three weeks ago when I went to target practice with Sal. If you’re satisfied with my gun, will you leave?”
He just held out his hand. Rolling her eyes, she dug in her computer bag, finding the gun where it always was. Except it wasn’t as she’d left it. As soon as her hand closed over it, she knew something was wrong. She drew it out, her heart pounding yet again.
Noah took it from her hand, then met her eyes. “You’d have a hell of a time hitting a target with this thing, considering it’s not loaded. I’m guessing this surprises you.”
Dread tightened her gut. “It had a full clip when I left the house tonight. I was so rattled by Buckland and Jeremy Lyons following me to the Deli that I double-checked.”
“Someone had access to your bag. Where do you keep it when you’re working?”
“In Sal’s desk drawer in the back office. To answer your next questions, the only people working tonight were me and Sal, but there is a door to the alley, for the trash.”
“Give me your bag.” He put on a pair of gloves and pulled out a manila envelope with her name written in block letters with a thick marker. “Feels like photos.”
Her blood went colder. “That’s the envelope Buckland tried to make me take.”
“Then let’s find out what he wants you to see so badly.” He slit the envelope open with his penknife, then uttered a hoarse curse. “Sonofabitch. Sonofafuckingbitch.”
Eve looked over his shoulder. And went still. In Noah’s hands were photos of himself and a petite redhead, locked in an embrace as they stood on a front porch. The number on the house matched the address on the piece of paper still in Eve’s pocket.
“Trina,” she murmured. Trina’s arms were around Noah’s neck, his around her back. Her face was pressed against his neck and he looked like he was holding on for dear life. Not good. Not good at all.
“Sonofabitch,” he repeated viciously. “She hugged me. That’s all.” He looked at Eve with a glare. “You can’t believe this? She’s my family, goddammit.”
He’d misinterpreted the concern on her face. “No,” she said and briefly touched her hand to his. He was shaking with fury. “I’ve seen her at the bar, seen her with you. I don’t believe she’d do it. And I don’t believe you would. So calm down.”
He did, shifting back to cop. “This means Buckland was at Brock’s Sunday night.”
“Well, Monday morning, actually. Must have been two, three in the morning.”
“Why were you at Brock’s at two in the morning?”
He shrugged sheepishly. “Why am I here with you at two in the morning?”
“That’s not an answer, Noah.”
“Yeah, it actually is. I went to Brock’s because I needed a drink, so Brock and I boxed some, punched out my craving. Always happens when I’ve been to Sal’s.”
He said it without accusation, but she felt guilty just the same. “Because of me.”
He looked her square in the eye. “Yes.”
Eve set this most recent declaration aside for later consideration, focusing instead on the timing. “Monday, at two in the morning? You’d just found Martha, Christy was still alive, and nobody knew about Samantha yet.”
“Except my team.” He looked puzzled, then his eyes widened. “He was following me even before the serial killer story broke.”
“In a very personal way. I told you he didn’t look quite sane. He said I wouldn’t think you were a ‘good guy’ after I saw these. I think he’s after you and I just got in the way.”
Noah massaged the back of his neck. “Why would he be after me?”
“I don’t know. Do you know him?”
“Not before this. I’ll report it to Abbott. Fine timing, just as we get a serial killer running around. And yes, I’m thinking what you’re thinking.”
“That it’s no coincidence.”
“Our reporter just got a whole lot less sane. He threatened you and he’s hanging around my family. I need to call Brock, make sure Trina and the boys are okay.”
He rose, piled the files on the floor, then paced as he dialed. He cursed and dialed another number, then a third. “Nobody’s answering at home or either of their cells.”
“Then go, make sure they’re all right. Call me when you know.”
He shrugged into his coat. “Brock and Trina are both cops. I’m sure they’re fine.”
“I’m sure they are, too. I’ll lock the door and call you if I hear so much as a rustle.”
He paused at the front door, his expression intense. “Thank you.”
“Believing I wasn’t the kind of man to cheat with my cousin’s wife.”
“You’re welcome. Noah, call me about Rachel Ward?”
“As soon as I hear from the cruiser. I promise.”
“Thank you. Be careful.” She locked the door behind him, more hollow than relieved as she sat in her chair to wait for his call. She’d told him to go, but she missed him already. I could get used to having a man in my house. In my life.
She thought about his admission, that he craved a drink after going to Sal’s to see her. He’d risked a great deal to watch her all those months. He was stubborn. He’d probably call it determined. Either way, he wasn’t going to give up.
“I’ll just tell him the truth,” she said quietly. “Then he’ll leave on his own. It’ll be for the best.” And when he was gone, she’d have her work. “If I’m not expelled.” She still had Dr. Pierce’s card. Perhaps it was time to start damage control on her career.
Wednesday, February 24, 1:45 a.m.
It was anticlimactic, actually. He stood staring down at Rachel Ward with a frown. She was sitting rather docilely on the counter stool he’d dragged to the middle of her basement floor. He hadn’t needed to sedate her to strap her in the straitjacket and tie her to the stool. She’d had so much to drink it was a wonder she’d made it home.
She’d been a road menace, weaving lane to lane. Thankfully they had encountered no police and Rachel had managed to stagger into her house. Pushing her through her front door had been child’s play. It was a disgrace. No more bars. Insist on coffee.
She was staring up at him, her eyes glazed. She should be coherent, conscious, ready to be scared to death. But she was nearly asleep, goddammit.
He could just strangle her, set the scene and get out, or he could wait for her to sober up. He might have something in his kit to speed her up. So to speak. Half the fun was in seeing their fear and he didn’t want to give up his fun without a fight.
Wednesday, February 24, 2:10 a.m.
Eve put her cell phone on one arm of her chair and settled in, her computer on her lap and her hands wrapped around a mug of hot coffee. Buckland had unloaded her gun. Why? Had he planned to attack her and wanted her helpless? Or had he just wanted her to know he was there? That he could get close to her wherever she was?
“Just to fuck with my mind,” she murmured. Who was this guy? And what self-respecting newspaper would hire him? Buckland was a stalker. He needed to be stopped before he hurt someone. Too late. She rotated her wrist. He hurt you.
He had. And if she hadn’t worked in a cop bar and if Jeff Betz hadn’t been right there, eavesdropping, he could have hurt her much worse.
Setting her mug aside she googled Kurt Buckland. And frowned. He was legit, with bylines on the Mirror going back years. Local stuff, neighborhood news. Of course the inside scoop on a serial killer could catapult him from Metro to the front page-and had. His “Red Dress Killer” article had been at the bottom of page one of Tuesday’s paper.
With a start she realized he’d written the article on Martha’s suicide she’d shown to Donner. She’d been so shocked she hadn’t noticed the reporter’s name. Tomorrow she’d report his assault to the police. And to his boss. He had to be stopped.
A flashing tab at the bottom of her screen caught her eye. It was the open Shadowland window. Someone was talking to Greer. Poor Greer. Eve had left her sitting at the bar in the cabaret, waiting for Rachel’s avatar to show up. Eve toggled back and saw the bartender was scolding Greer for loitering.
Buy another drink or leave.
I’m sorry, Eve typed. I’m waiting for someone. Maybe you know her. Delilah?
That trash? She’s not here tonight.
He said no more and Eve had Greer transfer a few Shadowbucks to the bartender’s tip jar. Money talked in any world. I need to talk to her. Who might have seen her?
The bartender avatar hesitated, then shrugged. That one over there, with the purple hair. The dancer’s nude body was painted with tiger stripes that clashed with her purple ’do. They sometimes sit together at the bar while they’re waiting to hook up for the night.
You mean, like meeting guys? To take home? Does Delilah do that often?
Do you consider ten or twelve times a night often?
Ew. She’d never understood the lure of virtual sex. Thanks, she typed and added a few more Shadowbucks to the tip jar, then sent Greer to the stage. Excuse me. Miss?
The dancer was wrapped around a pole, hips gyrating in an intriguing move Eve was sure took at least as many keystrokes as salsa dancing. I don’t do girls. Go away.
I don’t want to hook up with you, Eve typed. I’m looking for Delilah.
She ain’t here. She don’t do girls neither. That one over there does.
Eve shuddered. Ew. I don’t want to hook up. l need to talk to Delilah. Where is she?
She had a date. The gyrating hips bucked lewdly to the beat of cymbals. IRL.
Eve’s heart beat faster. IRL? Did she say who with? Somebody she met here?
The dancer frowned. I’m a businesswoman here.
Grinding her teeth, Eve transferred Shadowbucks to the dancer’s garter belt. Well?
Don’t know his real name. Here, he goes by John. Gonna be a one-night stand.
You ever hook up with John, here in the World?
Nah, not my type. Too bookish. Get enough of that on my day job. Now go away. I can’t type and dance at the same time and my set’s almost over.
Thanks, Eve typed, then backed Greer out of the casino and dialed Noah’s cell.
Wednesday, February 24, 2:15 a.m.
Noah parked his car in Brock’s driveway, reining in his panic. They still weren’t answering his calls. They’d better have a damn good explanation for this.
He knocked on their front door, scanning the road for any car that didn’t belong. He was here often enough that he knew the neighborhood vehicles. But nothing seemed out of place, except that nobody was answering his knock.
He found their key on his ring and let himself in. He drew his weapon and held it to his side, creeping through the darkened house, breathing a sigh of relief when he found the boys snug in their beds and sleeping soundly. He knocked lightly on Brock and Trina’s bedroom door, nudging it open when no one answered. Empty.
It was then he heard the shower. More correctly, he heard the shower stop. The master bath door opened, revealing a scowling Brock. He wore a robe that was soaked through and his wet hair stood up in spikes.
“This had better be good,” Brock said deliberately, through clenched teeth.
Noah looked him up and down. “You didn’t answer your phone.”
Brock drew an uneven breath. “So you rushed over here in the middle of the night?”
“Brock?” Trina came through the door and Noah looked away, but not in time to miss getting a glimpse of her in a very, very small towel.
Noah winced, staring at his shoe. “I can see my concern was misplaced.”
“Y’think?” Brock asked acidly. “You’re not the only one who ever has a goddamn bad day.” With that he stalked out of his bedroom, grabbing clothes on his way.
“For God’s sake, Noah,” Trina snapped. “What’s this all about?”
Noah kept his eyes averted. “We need to talk.”
“Right now is not a good time.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” He thought of the photos in his pocket, of Buckland out there somewhere with a telephoto lens. “But it’s important.”
She huffed impatiently. “Fine. Whatever. You can look now.”
Noah saw with relief that she’d wrapped her body in a robe. “I’m sorry,” he said. “When you didn’t answer your phones, I panicked. What happened to Brock?”
“Snowmobile accident,” she said briefly. “Teenager went through some pond ice. He was dead by the time Brock got to the scene. Kid was only fifteen.”
Noah closed his eyes briefly. “I’m sorry, Tree. Is Brock okay?”
“He would have been better if you’d let us finish,” she said dryly. “I’d say he’s a little on the frustrated side right now.”
“Therapeutic sex,” Noah said, pursing his lips, and she nodded.
“In the shower. Kids can’t hear the moans that way.”
“Trina.” His protest bordered on a whine and her lips twitched.
“Told you, you need to get some. At the moment, so do Brock and I.”
“O-kay. I’ll make this quick. A reporter got wind of this case I’m working.” He lifted a brow. “The one Eve referred to tonight in the bar during your little visit.”
Trina didn’t flinch. “I’m not apologizing for that.”
“Somehow I didn’t think you would. Anyway, this reporter has been trying to get Eve to give him inside information and she refused. Tonight he got rough.”
Trina’s attitude disappeared. “Is she okay?”
“Other than a bruise, she’s fine. He was trying to force her to look at some pictures. These.” He gave the envelope to Trina and watched her face grow hot and angry.
“Son of a bitch.”
“What?” Brock returned, swiping a towel over his wet head. The soaked robe was gone, changed for dry sweats. “What happened?”
Trina gave him the pictures. “Sunday. I gave Noah a hug after your boxing match.”
Brock’s eyes flashed. “What is this?” he snarled softly.
“Attempted extortion by a reporter who wants a story way too badly. He left those pictures in Eve’s computer bag and unloaded the gun she keeps there. I saw them, knew he’d been here, and I panicked.” He gestured weakly to the bathroom. “I’m sorry.”
Brock sat on the edge of his bed. “I guess I can understand the urgency.”
Trina put her arm around Brock’s shoulders. “Those photos might have caused a major family breach, Noah. I’m glad Brock is a smart man.”
“And that he trusts you,” Noah said. Unlike Eve, who thought he had an agenda. Which I guess I do. “Keep an eye on the boys, okay?”
“You bet.” Brock gave him the pictures. “You’re going to report this guy, right?”
“First thing in the morning. I-” His cell vibrated in his pocket. “It’s Eve. She told me to call when I made sure you were all right.” He angled his body away from Brock and Trina, more to avoid the knowing smirk they shared than to hide his conversation. “They’re okay,” he said. “Just a… misunderstanding.”
“That’s good,” she said. “Because I’m thinking Rachel’s not.” He listened as she explained, his jaw going taut. “You weren’t supposed to approach anyone.”
“Well, I did. Sue me. Noah, she’s in trouble. What did the cruisers say?”
He checked his watch and frowned. “Nothing yet and I should have heard. I’ll call you back.” He dialed Dispatch and was displeased with what he heard. “Then tell the second cruiser to proceed at fastest possible speed. Lights, no siren. I’m on my way.” He turned back to Trina and Brock, who no longer smirked. “The first cruiser came up on an accident, car slipped on the ice and hit a pole. They’re with the accident victims.”
“They were first responders,” Trina said evenly. “You know we have to stay. It’s regs.”
“I know,” Noah said grimly. “I just hope we’re not too late. Watch the boys. I’ll call you tomorrow. I have to go.”
Wednesday, February 24, 2:20 a.m.
Oh God. Rachel tried to breathe, but couldn’t draw a deep enough breath. He’d wrapped her arms around her. She couldn’t move. Vaguely she remembered her arms being shoved into sleeves, crossed over her body. Viciously yanked as he’d rolled her to her stomach, his knee sharp in her back. He’d tied her… tied the sleeves.
Her chin dropped to her chest as awareness returned in jolts. White. She blinked hard. White fabric covered her to her hips. Beyond that… she saw her own bare legs, felt the cold air between her thighs and knew she was naked. Help me.
Her heart raced but her mind was still… slow. Scream. But all that came out was a muted mewling. Her mouth was taped closed. Where am I? Her eyes darted, frantically. Basement. I’m in my own basement. Sitting on a stool from her kitchen counter.
She couldn’t see him, didn’t know him. She flinched. He was behind her. She could hear him breathing. Then she could smell it. Gasoline. It burned her nose, her eyes, and she remembered that night. The gas, the smoke, the heat. The stench of burning flesh. And the screams. She heard the screams of agony of the ones that hadn’t gotten out.
No. Get out. Get away. She wrenched her body, but went nowhere. I’m tied. I can’t get away. Her heart was beating so fast. Too fast. Her head swam, dizzy. Bernie. It had to be Bernie. Somehow he got out. He’d planned this. His revenge.
He’s going to kill me. She wrenched again, violently, felt the stool give, but it was brought swiftly back, all four legs on the floor with a thud that shuddered through her.
“Better,” he murmured in her ear. Her head jerked to the sound, but he was still behind her. Then he walked around the stool, stopped in front of her, and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes. Not Bernie. “Not fully cogent, but more aware.”
Her breath hitched. A lighter. He held it in front of her eyes and flicked it to life. She reared back, unable to take her eyes from the flame. He smiled. Smugly.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. You thought after your public display of good behavior that you could slip into the shadows, and live the life you craved in a fantasy world. You thought Delilah was invisible, but no one is truly invisible.”
Delilah. Shadowland. John. It had been a setup. A trap.
He stepped back and her eyes followed. He wore boots and… fireman pants over his trousers. The pants were too big, gaping at his waist. He might have looked like a clown except for the gun in his waistband. Behind him she saw a fire extinguisher. And next to that, a backpack. And on top of the backpack… my shoes. Neatly together.
“Fear is an interesting thing,” he said, and her gaze ripped back to his face. He was smiling, his eyes cold and cruel. I’m going to die. “Many fears, like the fear of snakes, are somewhat instinctive. They represent a heightened awareness of danger. It’s when those fears take control of our actions that they become phobia. You, Rachel, have an extreme phobia. Given your personal history, an understandable one.”
She could feel his breath on her face. “I think your incarcerated ex-husband will get quite a chuckle out of hearing that you were incinerated. Poetic justice, wouldn’t you say?”
He produced an extra-long match from his pocket, waved it like a wand. No. New terror shivered down her spine and she clenched her eyes shut.
“I am remiss,” he said. His fingers forced her eye open and she felt wetness over her eye a split second before he pressed her eyelid back. Glued. She struggled when he tried to glue her other eye and he slapped her face with a snarl. “Don’t move.”
He stepped back, flicked the lighter, touched it to the long match. “And without further ado.” A line of fire spread in a ring. Around me. Anywhere she looked. Coming closer. It hurt. Burned. Stop. Make it stop. Make the pain stop. The howl in her throat was muffled by the tape, her ears filled with the crackling, hissing of the flames.
And then the man was there, winding twine around her throat and all she could see was his eyes, alive and laughing. He was laughing.
She could hear him laughing, far away. Then he was groaning. So far away…
He let out a long, ragged breath, torn between elation and fury. He hadn’t held it in, hadn’t been able to control it. He’d let go. And it had been… incredible. He shuddered, his muscles twitching in the aftermath. Incredible.
His eyes were inches from hers. Empty now, they’d been wide, terrified, staring up at him because he demanded it. The whores always stared up. Never down. Never again. He relaxed his grip and the twine around Rachel’s throat went limp in his hands. His mind was clearing, logic returning. Incredible, but insane. He stepped from the carefully constructed fire zone and grabbed the extinguisher, putting out the flames, which in another few moments would have leapt free of the ring of flame suppressant he’d placed around the accelerant. The fire was out. In more ways than one.
He glanced down at his trousers, annoyed. His clothing probably had contained his ejaculate, but he had to be sure. He could leave no DNA behind. He had bleach in the back of his car. That and the fire would suffice to hide the evidence of his loss of control. Nothing of his would remain.
Wednesday, February 24, 2:30 a.m.
Harvey woke abruptly when the phone rang. He fumbled for it blindly. “What?”
“Wake up, Pop,” Dell said. “Our boys are on the move.”
“Where are you?”
“Following Phelps, like you told me to. Just use the GPS unit like I showed you to find Webster.”
Something was wrong. There was a satisfied note in his son’s tone that he just didn’t trust. He swung his legs over the bed and grabbed his pants. After tonight, they’d switch. I’ll follow Phelps. Before Dell did something foolish that they’d both regret.
Wednesday, February 24, 2:45 a.m.
“This is it? You’re sure?” Noah stood on the sidewalk next to two uniformed officers.
The uniforms nodded. “Yes, Detective. The address Dispatch gave us for Rachel Ward is this mailbox store.”
Noah looked around, wearily. Jack was nowhere to be seen. He’d called him three times each on his cell and his home line, getting Jack’s voicemail each time. He thought of Jack’s state of mind when they’d parted at the coffee shop hours ago. He could see Jack going home and getting totally drunk.
Which is his business on his own time. But this wasn’t Jack’s time. And Rachel’s time could be running out. “Thanks.” He dialed Eve. “Say the address again.”
“Why? Is Rachel all right?”
“I don’t know. This is a mailbox store. Check again.” She read the address again. “It’s a match. She didn’t give her home address when she registered for your study.”
“What are we going to do?”
“What I should have done already-run her through the system. I’ll call you.” He got in his car and radioed in his request for addresses for Rachel Ward.
Unable to sit still, he called Jack again. Still no answer. Dispatch came back with four possible addresses for Rachel Ward, one of which was only a mile from Jack’s house. Dammit. Jack, where the fuck are you?
Noah needed backup. His finger was a hairsbreadth away from calling Abbott, but something held him back. Face it. You don’t want to turn in your own partner. Not yet. His mind ran through the possibilities, settling on Olivia. She was already up to speed, no onboarding required. They could split the addresses and find Rachel faster.
Olivia answered on the first ring of her cell. “Sutherland.”
“It’s Noah Webster. Where are you?”
“Cruising downtown, looking for a witness for a trial next week. Why?”
“I need your help.”
“I… don’t know.”
“Oh.” The single syllable said it all. “Okay, tell me where. I’ll meet you.”
“No, we need to split up. I’ve got four addresses to check for a potential victim.” He gave her one of the addresses, then told her to be on the watch for an open bedroom window. If they found one, they’d be too late. If they found one, he’d need a partner.
“What about the others?” she asked.
“I’ll take one and have cruisers go to the other two. Thanks, Liv.”
Wednesday, February 24, 3:05 a.m.
He stepped back, surveying his handiwork. Five of six. Rachel Ward hanging by the neck had never looked better. Her feet were a little blistered, but the police would know a fire had occurred as soon as they entered her house. He wondered how quickly she’d be discovered. She’d be late to work tomorrow, obviously.
Sitting at her laptop, he went into her open Shadowland account and hung the wreath on her virtual door. He already knew he couldn’t paint her avatar’s face. Rachel hadn’t bought her Delilah from Pandora, so he’d have to be content with hanging the dancer from a virtual rope and setting the virtual scene. He could do it in a couple of clicks, as he’d done it so many times already. Then he took her computer, let himself out of Rachel’s house, locking her deadbolt behind him, and pocketed her key.
He’d driven to the edge of Rachel’s neighborhood when his heart nearly stopped. Pulling into the subdevelopment was a cop. Not just any cop. A homicide detective.
Olivia Sutherland. His heart started to pound in his ears. How had she known? Who told her to come here? Her car slowed as she passed and he held his breath. She had no legal reason to stop him. After the police had seen the car he’d used in Christy’s murder on the diner’s security video, he’d changed cars and plates. All part of the plan.
Sutherland resumed driving, and letting out the breath he’d held, he carefully pulled onto the nearly deserted two-lane highway, going east when he really needed to go west. West was toward the highway and home. But if any other cops were joining her, they’d come the same way she did and he didn’t want them finding him.
Who called Sutherland? he fumed. Who the hell had known about Rachel Ward? Now that he was breathing again, he had a pretty good idea.
Noah Webster had the study participant list, he knew. But there were five hundred names on that list. How had they guessed that Rachel Ward was next? He’d left no pattern, left no clues that would alert them to his next victim. Webster was smarter than the average cop, he allowed, but that still didn’t make him very smart. And Webster was no clairvoyant, that was for damn sure.
It had to have been Eve. He wasn’t sure how she’d known, but instinct had told him the girl would be dangerous. Now he realized he’d underestimated her. He would not make that same mistake again.
He forced himself to calm and rationally think things through. Eve had known about Martha and Christy and now Rachel. I knew they were prime targets because they were always in Shadowland. Because I’m in the game with them. And so, he realized, was Eve. She had to be. Clever girl. Too clever for her own good.
He’d thought that even if she told Webster about Shadowland, there’d be nothing to fear, but he’d been wrong. He’d come too close to getting caught tonight. Eve had come too close. She needed to be eliminated. Unfortunately, she was never alone.
Lure her out, kill her. It could still work, but not as long as she was on guard, careful. He had to throw her off-balance. Scare her to death. Then he’d lure her out and kill her.
Wednesday, February 24, 3:10 a.m.
Eve was cursing herself for leading Noah to the wrong address. But how could you have known? She couldn’t have, she knew, but what if Rachel was next? What if they didn’t find her in time? Rachel Ward would be one more death on her head.
She was staring at the list, wondering how many more addresses were mailbox stores, wondering if there was a fast way to weed them out. Just in case this happened again. It can’t happen again. We have to stop this guy.
She zoomed in on the address column on her participant list. And then cursed herself again, peering at the column next to the addresses. Social Security numbers. Dammit, she had Socials on every participant. She already knew Noah had four Rachel Wards to check out. She’d run an address check of her own as soon as they’d hung up. Socials would tell her which Rachel Ward was theirs.
She logged into the website Ethan used for background checks with the user name and password he’d set up for her when they’d talked that morning, blessing him for his foresight. She plugged in the information she knew and set the search in motion.
Rachel, where are you? Please be all right.
Feeling helpless, Eve toggled back to Shadowland and retrieved Greer. Maybe they were worried for nothing. Maybe the purple-haired dancer was wrong. Maybe Rachel’s Delilah had taken a goddamn virtual football team to her virtual condo for a virtual orgy.
She thought of Sal. How right he’d been. Aviators and orgies, indeed.
Eve guided Greer to Delilah’s condo, trepidation tightening her throat. And then she saw what she’d known deep down would be true. Too late. We’re too late.
Slowly, she backed Greer away from the black wreath on Rachel’s door, not wanting to see what was inside. Eve could still see Christy Lewis’s empty eyes staring at her in real life. She didn’t need to see the virtual equivalent one more time.
Four. Samantha, Martha, Christy, and now Rachel. He’d killed four women.
At the bottom of her screen the tab for the background check web-site was flashing. Her search was complete. Too late.
Blindly Eve reached for her cell and dialed Noah.
Wednesday, February 24, 3:15 a.m.
Olivia parked her car in front of the address Noah had given her and walked up to the house. It was dark. As quiet as the rest of the street. Carefully she picked her way around the back, through the snow, and looked up.
Her heart sank. “Dammit,” she whispered.
The upstairs bedroom window was wide open.
Wednesday, February 24, 3:15 a.m.
Noah answered Eve’s call on his cell. “I don’t know anything yet,” he said.
“I do,” she said quietly.
Noah slowed his car to a stop, a block from the address he’d drawn. “Tell me.”
“I found Rachel’s address.” It was the one Olivia was checking at this very moment.
“How?” he asked. In her voice he heard defeat and he knew. Too late.
“I had their Socials. We paid them a small study stipend and needed the Socials for tax purposes. I ran a background check and found the Rachel we’re looking for.”
“There’s a black wreath on her door in Shadowland. We’re too late, Noah.”
“You stay put,” he ordered. “And stop feeling guilty. I’ll call you when I can.”
“Okay,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Me, too.” No sooner had he hung up than his phone vibrated again. Olivia. “You found her,” he said dully.
“I’m looking at an open window, second story. How did you know?”
“Eve found her dead in the game. Call CSU. I’ll be there in under fifteen.”
Noah put his car into gear. “Still not answering his phone.”
“Noah, we have to call Abbott. You can’t keep covering for Jack.”
“I know. Don’t go in without me. Last time he used a poisonous snake.”
“More fun and games,” she said bitterly. “This guy’s a vile piece of shit.”
Olivia was waiting for him in front of Rachel’s house. Jack was nowhere to be found.
“I think it’ll be easier to get in through the back door,” Olivia said.
It took only one thrust of his shoulder. “Police,” Noah called, weapon drawn.
“Do you smell something burning?” Olivia murmured.
“Yeah. That’s new.” He lowered his weapon as he entered Ward’s bedroom. There she hung, like all the others. Right down to the shoes.
“Her eyes,” she whispered. This was her first time seeing it in person. There was something about the victims’ eyes that didn’t get captured in the crime scene photos. She touched Rachel’s arm, then whirled, her own eyes wide. “Noah, she’s still warm.”
Noah was there in two steps. “She’s been here maybe an hour,” he said.