Laura was bone-weary when she finally made it to her own front door. And to add insult to injury, it hadn't been the most productive day she'd ever spent. In fact, she'd only gotten one real break all day and that was one she'd finagled herself.
Harry rushed her as soon as she stepped through the door.
"Mommy! Mommy! You're home!"
She bent down and hugged him, then looked around in wonder. "Harry, where's Daddy? Isn't he here?"
The child nodded. "Uh-huh. He's playin' in the freezer with his friend. I wanted to sit out here an' wait for you! I helped make you dinner!"
Laura nodded distractedly and gave her son an extra hug before heading for her kitchen. Company? Two nights in a row?
She stopped dead in her tracks as soon as she entered the room. "What--?"
"Ah, Laura!" he said, around a wad of toweling which was pressed to his swelling jaw. "Look who dropped in." He dropped his free hand on the shoulder of the tall man leaning against the counter next to him.
"Monroe, it's good to see you again." She smiled at Monroe and then stepped closer and examined the face partially hidden under the ice-cube-filled toweling. "But what happened to you?"
"He hit me," said Monroe with a grin at his old friend, who tried to return the grin, but ended up wincing instead.
"He hit you?"
"That's right, and he used such a deadly weapon, well, I just had to defend myself."
"What did he hit you with?"
"His face. And I assure you, it was totally unprovoked. I was just standing there, outside the door and Mick here came flying at me and battered my fist all to hell with his jaw. It was seriously ugly."
"I'm sure it was," Laura said dryly. "And you never saw it coming, did you?" She sighed, took the wad of toweling over to the sink and began wringing it out. "It's a wonder he didn't break your hand. He's such a hardhead."
"He is that, isn't he?" Monroe agreed. "I'll probably never play the violin again."
"And music lovers everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief," his friend and victim put in. Laura gave him a look. "Well, Laura, you've never heard him play. The rest of us haven't been quite so lucky."
Laura began refilling the towel with ice. "Is it safe to say your fists are in no present danger?"
"Oh, my fists are perfectly safe," Monroe assured her, spreading his hands. "We had a long talk and he's realized the error of his ways. I don't think he'll be launching any unprovoked attacks in the future." He straightened up and brushed a piece of imaginary lint off his slacks. "Well, I'd better be going. You're in better hands than mine now, my friend."
Laura whirled. "Monroe! You can't leave! I mean, you wouldn't, would you?"
"Now, Laura, I've been here for almost an hour. And I have things to do and people to annoy this evening." He leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek. "But I will drop by again. Soon." He clasped hands with his old friend. "And I'll con this bugger into a game of darts when I do."
"Darts?" Laura asked, glancing from one to the other.
"Yes, it's the only game Monroe thinks he has a ghost of a chance of beating me at," he said, grinning lopsidedly, before wincing again and rubbing his swollen jaw. "He's wrong of course."
"Wrong am I, mate? Well, you and the lady here, and your son of course, just drop by my place any night of the week, and we'll see who's wrong, won't we?"
"You've got yourself a deal." The two men clasped hands again, then pulled each other into a friendly clinch.
Laura wrung the damp towel out in the sink once again as the two men headed to the door. Well, she reflected wryly, she had given warning.
She smiled down at her son.
"I made you dinner with Daddy, then Unca Monroe came an' now he went an' didn't eat dinner. How come?"
"Oh sweetie, Uncle Monroe had to go because he was busy. But he promised to come see us again. Would you like that?"
"Uh-huh." Harry nodded. "I like Unca Monroe. He bringed me a dinosaur!" The child held up the small plastic triceratops and his mother eyed the horns dubiously.
"Very nice. But you need to go wash up for dinner now, o.k.?" Smiling, the child made a dash for the stairs. Laura turned back to the table and sighed. It was set for three and, judging from the smell emanating from the oven, it was going to be one of his more spectacular efforts. She started slightly as an arm circled her waist from behind.
"Hungry?" he asked.
"Starving, actually." She studied his face. "But are you going to be able to eat with your jaw all swollen like that?"
He offered her a crooked grin. "Oh, I'll manage somehow. Have you ever seen me miss a meal?"
"On purpose?" They laughed briefly before being interrupted by the doorbell. "I'll get the door," Laura told him. "You get the dinner."
It was Mildred. "Hi, hon! I probably should've waited 'till tomorrow, but I thought I'd better give you a report tonight, in case you want to do anything about it."
Laura peered past Mildred into the parking lot. "Joe isn't with you?"
"Oh, he'll be by to pick me up again in about fifteen, twenty minutes. He went to gas his car. I figured I wouldn't stay long."
"Mildred, I'm disappointed," he said, coming up to them.
"Hiya, Chief! Disappointed in what?" She eyeballed his jaw, then grinned at the dishtowel wrapped around his waist. "Drafted into dish detail, are we?"
"Actually," he said, planting a kiss on her cheek, "making dinner. And I'm disappointed in two things. One, that I haven't met this 'Joe' character yet and two, that you're not staying for dinner. Both of you. There's plenty, actually."
She smiled and patted his shoulder. "I'm sure there is, and I'll ask Joe when he gets here, but don't be disappointed if we take a rain check."
"I won't. Well, I'll get back to my chicken and leave you two ladies to talk." He retreated into the kitchen and they could hear him humming amidst the clatter of pots and dishes.
"He's doing that deliberately for noise, isn't he?" Mildred asked. "So we can talk in private?" Laura nodded, a fond smile on her face.
"So what did you discover?" she asked, sitting on the couch next to Mildred, who fished a fresh floral notebook out of her cavernous purse.
"Well, nothing at all on Jessica Beecham, actually." Mildred said. "But I've got some interesting information for you on a possible suspect."
Laura straightened up and stared at her longtime friend and associate. "You're not serious?"
"Dead serious," Mildred said with a complacent nod. "I was cruising the ladies' room at Crowder's and struck up a conversation with a woman who'd just dropped in unexpectedly, like me. She wasn't part of the usual crowd. She also wasn't part of the neighborhood. Turns out, this gal lives over a the low-rent area, down by the edge of the old industrial district."
"I thought that area had all been gentrified. A kind of yuppie enclave," Laura said.
"Yeah, on every side but the north side. And that's where Carmen, the lady I spoke with, lives. Turns out there was some trouble in her building recently."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Well, her upstairs neighbor, a Mr. Barry, moved out rather abruptly last week. Nothing unusual for that neighborhood, except that his rent had just been paid for the month. According to Carmen, though, she didn't like Mr. Barry. Thought he was strange. And the last night anybody knows for sure he was in residence, she saw him bring a woman to his apartment."
"And what makes this interesting to us?"
"She found out he'd moved when she and several other tenants lodged a complaint with the building manager. It seems that Mr. Barry and his 'friend' had made a little too much noise that night. Loud music, muffled shrieks, that sort of thing. Nothing that would be noteworthy, really, except that Carmen wasn't feeling well that night and her apartment is directly under Barry's. She spent a good portion of the evening in her bathroom, which is right under Mr. Barry's bathroom. And not only did she hear no talking from upstairs, what she did hear was a lot of water running "
"And what she says had to be a chainsaw."
"Turns out her father operated a lumberyard. She swears there's no other sound quite like it. And, according to her, Barry wasn't cutting wood or metal."
"Did she report this to anyone?"
"No, because when the manager told her Mr. Barry was gone, she figured, why bother. But I read that coroner's report. The body was dismembered with a chainsaw or something very much like one, wasn't it?"
Laura nodded, her eyes focused on something far away.
"And Mrs. Smythe did indicate that there had been more murders than just her daughter's didn't she? So I figure, it's not a great lead, but it's something concrete, isn't it?" She paused. When there was no response, "Miss Holt?"
Laura started and looked at her, blinking in confusion.
"I said, it's something to go on, right?"
"You may be right, Mildred. I take it you got a street address?"
"Of course I did. Told her I was thinking of moving someplace cheaper. She gave me her address, the name of the management company and the phone number of the building manager, whose name is LaTrelle, by the way."
"Good work, Mildred. It might not turn out to be anything, but it's definitely worth checking out. Did you get any description of the man?"
"She got a little antsy when I started asking too many questions, but I gathered he was something of a turtle. Zipped in and out of his apartment, never nodded, never spoke to anyone. Downright unfriendly, she said. Other than that, she didn't have anything to say about him. She didn't even know his first name."
"Well, we'll tackle it tomorrow. First thing in the morning, we'll come up with a plan on how to approach the people involved. But for now--" She was interrupted by the doorbell. Mildred brightened.
"That'll be Joe," she said happily. Laura smiled as she rose and went to the door.
But the smile died abruptly when the door opened.
"Good evening Miss Holt. I hope I'm not interrupting your dinner."
"We were just about to sit down, Detective Jarvis," Laura said, her tone frosty. "Is this urgent?"
"It's fairly important. Is Mr. Steele in?"
"What can we do for you this evening, Detective?" He was suddenly just behind her and his voice startled her, making her jump.
"I was wondering if I might borrow you for an hour or so."
"As Laura told you, Detective, we were just about to sit down to dinner. Can't this wait until later?"
Jarvis sighed and shook his head. "I wish it could, but I'm afraid timing is rather crucial. It has to be now."
Laura's chin came up. "Then, perhaps we should both go. It sounds like something I wouldn't want to miss, either."
He was tugging at her elbow, pulling her back, away from the door. Jarvis remained where he was, smiling to himself.
"Laura, what are you doing?"
She faced him. "I have a case and it could tie in to this. I want--, no, I need to be there for this."
"A case? What case?"
"Your serial killer may have killed my client's daughter. If there's anything Jarvis knows that can help, I want to be there."
"Laura, this probably doesn't have anything to do with your client. It's probably not the same killer at all."
Laura began ticking points off on her fingers. "Murdered. Dismembered. Left in several different dumpsters. Probably cut up with a chain saw of some kind. Sound familiar?" She smiled as his eyes widened. "It should. I'm afraid I called Detective Jarvis today and got him to send over copies of the reports on the other murders. If what you're doing is involved with these murders, it involves my client. I need to be there." She studied his face intently. "Don't worry. I'm sure I won't get in the way. You boys do what you need to do. I'll just poke around for myself."
"Ah. Yes. But, Laura, we can't both go, can we?"
Her chin came up. "And why not?"
"Well, who would watch Harry?" He grinned at her, watching her chin lower.
It didn't stay down long, though. "Mildred!" she called cheerfully.
"Yes, Miss Holt?"
"Do you think you and Joe would mind a bit of impromptu babysitting? We need to run out for about an hour or so. We wouldn't be gone long. And there is all that dinner just sitting there, begging to be eaten." She gave him a defiant grin and was rewarded by a sheepish look in return.
"Well, I guess we could," Mildred said. "We didn't have reservations anywhere. And Joe loves playing with the little guy. Sure. We can stay." She put her purse decisively on the floor at her feet and wriggled out of her light jacket. "Has Harry eaten yet?"
He sighed and then bowed to the glint in Laura's eyes. "None of us have eaten yet," he told Mildred. "But I fixed up a special plate for Harry. I made lemon chicken for Laura and I, but I thought he'd rather have plain baked chicken, so his plate is in the oven, covered with tinfoil, just above the casserole dish. That's the lemon chicken. You help yourselves. As Laura said, there's plenty to go around."
Laura slipped her arm though his. "There's always plenty to go around, isn't there?"
Jarvis held the door open. "Well, then, shall we? Sooner we start, sooner we finish."
Mildred waved from the doorway, Harry pressed close against
her side, as they pulled out of the parking lot.
There were two squad cars parked outside, lights flashing when they pulled up. "Of course he's dirty all the way, but we had to check out the lead anyway," Jarvis was saying as he propped his portable bubble light on his hood and checked the electrical connection to his cigarette lighter. The blue and white strobe light flashed in the darkness.
"So you think because the building manager deals drugs he can't be right about this former tenant?" Laura's voice was only slightly arch. She stared up at the ugly building before her. Flat brown brick, bare windows rising to the roof. Low rent with a vengeance. Even the fire escape on the side of the building was rusty and bent. She'd place good money on a bet that none of the fire alarms worked in the building either, if there were any fire alarms.
"I'm not saying he's wrong, but it's not something I'd run to the DA with, either." Jarvis shrugged. "Anyway, the guy's been gone for almost a week now and all I've got is some kind of noise complaints from the tenants and the building manager's insistence that the guy was dirty somehow. And that only came out when he was being booked for drug dealing out of his apartment."
"There has to be more than that, Detective." His voice was mild, but Jarvis reacted as if struck.
"What makes you say that?" he said, chin rising, eyes narrowing slightly.
"Because you wouldn't have all this manpower out for a rumor. You found something, didn't you?"
His face cleared slightly. "Yeah. But I'm gonna wait before I give you any details. Let you get your own impression of the place first. We'll talk afterward." Putting his hands in his pockets, the curly-haired detective strolled over to the uniformed officers in front of the building, his back to them.
Laura looked up at him. "What's wrong?" she asked softly.
"Just a feeling."
"What sort of feeling?"
He sighed. "I feel like a poodle at a dog show, being
prodded through a hoop. And I don't like it."
The halls were damp and the carpet smelled of mold and something worse. The bare bulbs set in the high ceilings were dim, which didn't hide the peeling paint and warped doorframes. Laura found herself keeping to the center of the hallway, trying not to brush up against anything.
Jarvis stopped in front of a plain brown door on the second floor. He fished a key out of his pocket, unlocked the door and lifted the yellow police tape, allowing the others entrance.
Inside, the apartment wasn't much better. The living room floorboards were covered by a thin, green rug, worn threadbare and not hiding all of the stained, warped floorboards. The windows were small and covered with plastic shades, torn and ragged around their edges. Street noises floated through them clearly. A small sofa sagged dismally in the center of the room, crouched behind a cheap coffee table whose plastic coated top was cracked and peeling.
Laura moved to the far end of the living room and entered a small alcove kitchen. A small stove, refrigerator and sink elbowed against each other, fighting for room in the choking space. Narrow shelves covered with thin fabric curtains sat at eye-level over the sink and stove. She could see the dull glint of cup hooks on their undersides.
The refrigerator was empty and it, like the oven, stove and sink, were spotless. The only thing on the floor was a desiccated ant trap near the base of the sink that hadn't seen an insect in years from the look of it.
Back in the living room, the two men had their heads in a small coat closet near the door. Laura moved past them into the bedroom. The dissection may have taken place in the bathroom, but the murder, she was sure, had been committed in the bedroom.
The bed surprised her. It was a single bed with a threadbare chenille spread hunched over a stacked pair of thin, limp pillows. Against an opposite wall was a scarred, age-darkened chest of drawers. Each drawer had been left open, probably by the police, and Laura peered inside. Aside from some dust in the top drawer, all the drawers were empty. They were lined with dry paper. It looked to be some type of giftwrap, faded pale flowers against a pinkish background. The edges were dry and crumbling. Cautiously, Laura lifted one. Nothing.
Likewise there was nothing on the floor under the bed or the dresser and nothing behind the dresser either. A straight-backed metal kitchen chair with a plastic covered seat yielded no clues. She opened the closet door. A tiny cluster of dried ant droppings were the only proof that anything had ever been inside the small, close-smelling space. More dust on the shelf above the clothes bar, but no impressions in it to indicate that boxes or valuables had ever been kept there.
Laura closed the door, a small cloud of depression setting over her shoulders. There were no clues to be found here and she couldn't imagine anyone bringing a date here. She couldn't imagine any sane woman agreeing to a liaison of any kind in these morbid surroundings. Fearing another dead end, she returned to the living room and looked around for the bathroom door.
They were in there now, crouched in front of the tub. Jarvis was pointing to small scratches in the worn white-and-gold linoleum floor. Laura cleared her throat and the two men looked up at her.
"Clues, Detective?" she said. "Chain saw marks, perhaps?"
"Not really, Miss Holt. It's more like high heel marks. At least that's what the forensics boys think."
"High heel marks?"
"Interesting ones, though." He stood up and indicated that she could take his spot to see better. "Look closely, tell me what you think."
Giving him a dubious look, Laura crouched on the floor and studied the faint markings in the nearly smooth-worn linoleum. The marks were obviously fairly recent, their edges still ragged. They were slightly wider and deeper further out, narrowing and fading the closer they came to the tub itself. She looked up at the green tiles of the wall inside the tub area and thought for a moment.
"He sat her on the edge of the tub, facing out," she said, almost to herself. "Her heels scraped outward from there as he lowered her, or pushed her, back into the tub itself."
"That's pretty much how we figured it happened," Jarvis commented calmly. "Unfortunately, those are the only marks we could find. However he managed to cut the body up in here, he did it carefully and didn't leave any marks at all. Just those."
"No blood, either," Laura commented, looking around at the tile, scraping a finger against the grout between the tiles, rubbing an index finger over the faucet, peering up at the showerhead.
"Cleaner than my mother could have gotten it," Jarvis said. ". But nobody cleans well enough. We'll do a luminol test and see what that turns up Of course, it's possible he covered everything in plastic and discarded that elsewhere. Or taken it with him and cleaned it elsewhere. For future use."
Laura shuddered and turned away. "So, what can you get from a heel scrape? There's no way to tell what kind or size of shoes they were, or even if it happened the way you said. She could have stumbled. Or it could have been something else, just as innocent. Other than the fact that the neighbors think something happened here and the building manager insists something did, what evidence do you really have?"
"Oh, nothing really," Jarvis said, grinning, looking down at his own shoes, which he began to scrape around in that 'aw shucks' way that never failed to raise her hackles. "It's just a small thing, probably nothing "
Laura sighed and crossed her arms. "Let's drop the routine for once, Jarvis. What did you find?"
"A fingernail," he said, his smile now wide and triumphant. "Snagged in the fabric of the arm of the couch. He cleaned everything else, but must have missed it somehow."
"A fingernail," Laura said dismissively. "So you figure female and victim. Why? Fingernail polish? I've got news for you, Detective. Join the latter part of the 20th century. Men wear polish now and not just punk rockers either."
"Oh, no polish," Jarvis told her, unperturbed. "Better."
"Yep. You see, we have joined the 'latter part of the 20th century' Miss Holt," he said, his grin now slightly feral. "We did a DNA match. The victim who died in this apartment was Annie Kelly, a pathologist in the coroner's office. She was also, as near as we can tell, his fifth victim. We only found her body this past Saturday night."
Laura blinked in shock. Sticking his hands in his pockets and whistling softly under his breath, Jarvis wandered out into the living room.
"Laura?" The voice behind her was soft, concerned, but she couldn't answer. She was thinking. Of Saturday night, her Saturday night. How happy she'd been. While Annie Kelly was being
"Laura?" She turned, face filled with conflicting emotions. He reached out and gripped her upper arm, massaging it gently. Slowly, she focused on his face, his eyes, his encouraging smile. "Are you o.k.?"
"I read the report. I knew, should have realized " she murmured.
"Saturday night." She sought his eyes with her own. "Saturday night. When we were "
"Hush, love." He pulled her close and she buried her face in his shirtfront, smelling soap and aftershave and him, drawing comfort from it. "It's o.k. Lots of things happened that night. People were born, people died, people fell apart and some came back together again. That's just how it goes. Don't think of it. All right?"
She nodded and straightened her shoulders. "You're right. I'm fine now. It was silly. Don't worry about me."
"I should go out and talk to Jarvis, then." She nodded and he stepped past her. She was left, staring at the interior of the small bathroom, the faint scratches near the tub. All that was left of Annie Kelly. She raised her chin and found herself faced with her own face in the mirror. The sight of her own bleak eyes forced her to draw a steadying breath and square her shoulders.
Whatever else had happened, this wasn't over. She hadn't known Saturday night. But she knew now. And she would find out who had done this. To Annie and Jessica and all the others.
Hopefully, before he could do it to anyone else.
Back in the living room the two men broke off an intent conversation and looked at her.
"Sorry to interrupt you great detectives, but I wanted to know if any of the neighbors had given you any idea of what our mystery tenant looks like."
Jarvis' smile hadn't grown any warmer, or any less sharklike. "I'm sorry, Miss Holt, but in this building, apparently nobody sees anybody else. We've been all over the building and our composite artist has done his level best, but the result is pretty much nothing. All we got was a balding man. Nondescript features, as far as we got. Nothing more. Male, white, vaguely middle-aged. Maybe younger. Maybe not. That's about it."
"L.A.'s finest bring out the best in the locals, obviously."
Jarvis waved an expansive hand toward the front door. "Feel free to try your own technique, Miss Holt. Of course, if you get anything from it, you'll be kind enough to share with us poor stupid cops, won't you?"
Laura smiled. "I'm nothing if not generous, Detective. But I'm not foolish enough to try anything tonight, with all the lights and excitement outside. Who would want to strike up any conversation so boring with all this excitement going on? If you boys are done for the night, perhaps we should get back to our dinner. What do you think?"
He smiled down at her, ignoring Jarvis' sudden frown. "I think that's a splendid thought. I'm starving. Do you think Mildred and Joe left us anything of the lemon chicken?"
Together they swept past Jarvis and out the door. Grumbling slightly to himself, he followed them down to the car and sullenly drove them back to Laura's apartment.
As they exited the car, Jarvis stuck his head out of the driver's window. "Steele! You'll have that report to me tomorrow, right?"
The answer was a faint grimace, then, "Something like that, Detective. Goodnight. Thanks for the interesting tour."
Jarvis head retreated into the car like a turtle back into its shell and the car spun it's wheels on it's way out of the parking lot.
"Not a happy man," Laura murmured. "Pity to take it out on the car, though."
"Better the car than us, darling," he reminded her
with a soft hug, which she willingly returned. Together
they headed upstairs where warm lights and leftover lemon chicken
She wasn't coming. He told himself that, even as he stuffed his hands deeper into the pockets of his windbreaker and settled his feet more firmly in place. He could wait all night, but she just wasn't going to show up tonight.
Across the street, neon glowed and peals of laughter spilled out onto the street each time the door opened to let another carefree couple enter.
It felt like the laughter was aimed at him. But that was nonsense. He couldn't let his imagination run away with him now. Now was when he needed all his senses at their sharpest. She knew him and she knew how to take advantage of those momentary lapses. After all, wasn't that how she had eluded him all this time?
No, he had to stay sharp, stay strong. The mere fact that he didn't think she'd be here tonight meant he absolutely couldn't leave his post. She would wait for that. Wait until he'd given up in disgust. Then and only then she would sweep in on some arm or other, her laughter tinkling along the street like a call in the night. Or a curse.
No, he couldn't leave yet. Not until he was certain. Not until she felt safe from him. Then, and only then, would she appear. And when she did, he would be ready.
He would be waiting.
"Goodnight, Mildred, Joe! Drive safe!"
Laura waved from the doorway as Mildred and her date stepped into the Buick parked at the bottom of the stairs. She watched them drive away before closing the door and returning to the dining room.
He was putting away the last of the dishes and she began to idly flip through the small sheaf of notes Mildred had left her. Their son had long since gone to bed and the adults had passed a pleasant hour visiting over the last of the lemon chicken and bowls of Rocky Road ice cream. She looked up to catch him watching her over his shoulder.
"What?" she asked, with a raised eyebrow.
"Nothing. I just thought you looked a tad done in. It's been a long day, hasn't it?"
"Ridiculously long. And that nonsense with Jarvis didn't help at all. What is his problem?"
"Well, Laura, you insisted on coming along."
"Well, I thought there was something to see," she said, scanning pages. "What an ego-fest. He drags us to an empty apartment, no clues except scuff mark on the bathroom floor, and then drops his little fingernail bombshell. He could have done the whole thing over the phone, but no, he had to get you over there to play Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. It was all such a waste of time."
"And I used to think he had at least something on the ball," she continued, peering closely at the cramped handwriting on the small pages. "I'm starting to wonder if I'm any judge of character at all. You were right. It was just hoops. Stupid little useless hoops." She closed Mildred's notebook. "I think, the next time he comes to the door, I'll tell him you can't come out to play. It'll save a lot of time and aggravation, I'm sure."
She picked up her teacup and tested it for warmth before drinking. "So, what did you think of Joe?"
The only answer was silence. After a moment, she looked up and saw him standing, looking at her. Suddenly, her mouth was dry. Very dry. The silence held a few more moments.
"Laura," he said, very softly, "we need to talk."
It was more the look in his eyes than the tone of his voice that told her the shoe she'd been fearing since he'd reappeared had finally dropped. She didn't realize how frightened she was until she tried on a smile and discovered her lips wouldn't cooperate. "It sounds serious," she said with forced lightness. He didn't say anything and she swallowed, heavily. "So, is it that bad?"
The silence this time only lasted a heartbeat, but the space between that heartbeat and the next seemed to stretch out forever.
"I'm afraid it is."