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A Jack Daniels Thriller: Teaser #2
(This installment picks up immediately following Teaser #1, available free here.)
(This installment picks up immediately following Teaser #1, available free here.)
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similar ity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright ©2010 J. A. Konrath and published here with his permission.
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photo copying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by AmazonEncore
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
2010, August 10
I flipped over onto my left side, my shoulders burning, my fingers beginning to go numb from the restricted blood flow. I closed my eyes and tried to relax my muscles. A cramp right now would be torture.
This new view didn’t offer any revelations. I still couldn’t see anything, still couldn’t hear anything other than the hum of some machine. I stretched out my bound legs, seeking anything other than empty space, and my bare toes touched something.
Something flat, and metal. Cool, smooth, it made an empty sound, like tapping on a Dumpster. I kicked harder, feeling it vibrate, realizing it was a wall.
This wasn’t a garage. It was a storage locker. Probably one of those self-storage spaces that people rented out.
And all at once I knew who had me. And I knew what he wanted to do with me.
My death wasn’t going to be the worst of it. Death, when it came, would be a mercy.
I flexed my knees and kicked them against the corrugated aluminum wall as hard as I could, hoping someone would hear me.
Knowing no one would. Knowing what would come next.
Twenty-five years ago
1985, October 15
Sergeant Rostenkowski walked into the classroom and cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention. He was old—probably close to fifty—thick, with hands like two-by-fours, the knuckles covered with curly, gray hair. When he spoke, it was with utmost authority, and all of us took notes. Standing next to him was a short man in an ill-fitting suit whom we’d never seen before.
“Our guest speaker today is Dr. Malcolm Horner,” the sergeant boomed, “a clinical psychiatrist from the University of Chicago.”
Harry McGlade raised his hand and began talking without being called on. “Doc, I’ve been having these dreams where I’m trying to throw a spear at a giant pink pretzel, but every time I throw it my spear bends in half.”
Everyone in class laughed, except for me. I nudged my one-piece chair and desk away from Harry and silently pitied the poor sap who got stuck being his partner after graduating from the police academy.
Dr. Horner smiled politely. “Your problem, Cadet, is firmly rooted in the fact that you have to be the center of attention, probably because your parents didn’t love you enough.”
Harry’s grin fell away, but mine blossomed.
“My mom may not have loved me,” Harry said, “but the last time I saw your mom, which was yesterday—”
“Can it, McGlade.” Rostenkowski shot out one of his cut the bullshit looks, and Harry clammed up. “Now, please welcome Dr. Horner to our class.”
The fifty or so cadets offered the psychiatrist a weak round of applause. It was close to dinner time, we’d been running drills all day, and I figured everyone was as hungry, exhausted, and brain dead as I was. While I was sure Dr. Horner would be tremendously enlightening (baloney, because during four weeks at the police academy the speakers had ranged from bland to downright awful), now wasn’t a good time to absorb a lecture. But like any good student, I dutifully opened my notebook to a blank page and jammed a pen between my fingers.
“Gentlemen…and ladies,” Dr. Horner acknowledged me, the only woman in the room. “Today I’m going to talk about evil.”
My interest was piqued. In the nonstop lectures I’d been forced to endure about the criminal mind, the word evil hadn’t been used before. We’d had terms like socioeconomic factors and biological positivism and differential association hammered into our heads, but nothing on evil.
This prompted a predictable outburst from Harry. “I just joined so I could catch bad guys.”
While being a law enforcement officer had as much to do with how and why criminals became criminals as it did with how to catch them, part of me was with Harry on this issue. While poverty, upbringing, and genetics all contributed to illegal behavior, I was more interested in stopping it than understanding it.
But evil? That was for philosophy class, not psychology. I thought about mentioning that, but someone in the front row beat me to the punch.
“We’ve been told evil doesn’t exist. Last week, your colleague, Dr. Habersham, lectured that morality had no place in law enforcement. We’re supposed to enforce the law, not judge right and wrong.”
“I’m surprised you stayed awake long enough during Dr. Habersham’s lecture to absorb that tidbit.”
Laughter broke out. I was starting to like this guy.
“Indeed,” he continued, “some schools of philosophy dictate that morality changes according to society. For example, in ancient Rome it was considered acceptable to throw people to the lions. A little over a hundred years ago, our country bought and sold human beings. Forty years ago, Germany endorsed genocide, something still common in modern times. For a recent example look at Cambodia and the killing fields, where more than two hundred thousand people were forced to dig their own graves before being beaten to death with ax handles because their executioners wanted to save on ammunition.”
I looked around. No one was fidgeting or sleeping. Even Harry seemed to be paying attention.
“If we’re going to discuss evil,” Dr. Horner went on, “first we must decide whether evil is defined as an act, or as a trait. Let’s do a thought experiment. An innocent, let’s say a child, is murdered. By a show of hands, is this an evil act?”
Almost every hand went up. I kept mine on my desk. Dr. Horner met my eyes, pointed at me.
“Your hand didn’t go up. Can you tell us why, Miss…?”
“Streng,” I said. “Jacqueline Streng. There might be altruistic intentions for the malice aforethought and…” my mind groped for the Latin term we recently learned, “mens rea.”
Dr. Horner smiled. “I see you’ve been studying hard, Miss Streng, but please cut the jargon and give me an example when murdering a child isn’t evil.”
“What if it’s a child dying of cancer, and in terrible pain? A parent, or someone else who loves the child, might attempt murder to end the suffering.”
“Excellent, Miss Streng. Mercy killing, by law, meets the requirements for murder. The act of committing the crime, actus reus, and the willful intent to commit the crime, mens rea, is indeed malice aforethought, and according to the present law, that parent is a murderer. In this scenario, how many of you think the act is evil?”
No one raised their hand.
“But earlier, almost every hand was up. If the act itself isn’t evil, what is?”
Someone said, “Motive.”
“Ah.” Dr. Horner nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere. A parent’s decision to murder is based on ending a child’s agony. A noble, unselfish motive. Now let me show you a motive that’s a bit more selfish. Lights, please.”
Rostenkowski killed the lights, and Dr. Horner positioned himself behind a slide projector. He switched it on, and an image threw itself up on the movie screen on the far wall.
Someone coughed—an attempt to cover up a gag. I forced myself to look even though I had to hold my breath to do so. The temperature in the room seemed to drop ten degrees.
“This victim has never been identified. The missing fingers and missing teeth have made it impossible to trace who she is. They were removed while she was still alive. The mutilation here—”
Dr. Horner used a pointer and tapped the screen, touching the victim’s pelvis.
“—was caused by a sharp instrument, a filet knife, or perhaps a scalpel. The victim was forced to eat these parts of herself. This white powder is salt, rubbed into the wounds. The burns here, here, here, and here were the result of a superheated flame. Possibly a blowtorch.”
Dr. Horner turned away from the slide and stood in front of the screen, the ghastly image projected on his face and body.
“The autopsy determined, based on how some of the wounds had had time to heal, that she’d been tortured for at least twenty-four hours. We have no suspects, but some of the atrocities committed upon her have been seen in other, similar murders. The perpetrator has been dubbed Unknown Subject K by the FBI. We’ve taken to calling him Mr. K for short. Lights please, Sergeant.”
The overhead fluorescent light flickered on. It reduced the brightness of the slide, but not enough. Details could still be seen.
“Now I present to you my earlier question. By a show of hands, who believes Mr. K is evil?”
Every hand went up but mine. Dr. Horner focused on me.
“Surely you don’t believe this is a mercy killing, Miss Streng.”
Titters from the peanut gallery.
“No. Of course not.”
“So why didn’t you raise your hand?”
“I don’t know enough about the case.”
Dr. Horner folded his arms across his chest. “What more do you need to know?”
“Was she raped?”
“Aw, come on!” Harry, naturally. “She was tortured for an entire day! What does it matter if she was raped, too?”
“Rape is a crime of violence,” I stated, “but rapists tend to enjoy the act.”
Dr. Horner tilted his head. “Sexual assault is unverified. Those parts of her were cut away. No semen was found.”
“Was this the crime scene?” I asked. “Or was she dumped there?”
“We believe the apartment where she was discovered was where the crime was committed.”
“Were there condoms found in the apartment? Condom wrappers?”
“Was it her apartment?”
“No. The room was supposed to be unoccupied.”
“Were there neighbors?”
Dr. Horner offered a small smile. “Yes, on either side.”
“No one heard her screams?”
“No. The same thing that allowed Mr. K to pry out her teeth also kept her from making any sound. A ball gag, holding her mouth open. Sold in sex shops across town and in the backs of pornographic magazines worldwide.”
“Did he use ball gags on his other alleged victims?”
“Let’s stick with this one. What is your reasoning that Mr. K might not be evil? His objective was obviously to cause pain and death.”
I tapped my eraser against my desk. “But what was his motive? Did he do this because he knew the victim and hated her? Is he a sexual predator, a lust killer, who derived pleasure from his acts? Or was this murder dispassionate? Maybe someone paid him to commit these acts, but he had no feelings about it one way or the other.”
“You’re going to make an excellent police officer, Miss Streng,” Dr. Horner said. “And I agree with you completely. Mr. K’s intent was to murder in a ghastly fashion, but his motive might have been personal, sexual, or even financial. But the question is, which is the most evil?”
Dr. Horner stepped closer to me, so the victim’s face projected onto his own.
“If you were at Mr. K’s mercy, Miss Streng, would you prefer him to be a sexual sadist who delighted in your agony, or a cold-blooded mercenary who dispassionately inflicted these tortures because he was just following orders?”
2010, August 10
I flexed my fingers, my bound hands becoming dangerously numb. The ball gag felt enormous in my mouth. My heart was beating so fast I felt close to fainting.
I closed my eyes, forcing myself to concentrate. I’d been following the Mr. K case for more than twenty-five years. It was both my hobby and my white whale.
We’d crossed paths before. I’d logged in a lot of hours trying to catch him. A staggering one hundred and eighteen homicides had been attributed to the enigmatic killer.
Killer. Mr. Killer. That’s the label the FBI attributed to him when they found a “MR. K” written in marker on a ball gag found at one of his scenes.
His victims seemingly had nothing in common. They were spread out across the nation, both men and women, ranging in age from seventeen to sixty-eight, encompassing many different races, religions, backgrounds, and histories.
The murder methods also varied wildly. Victims had been shot, stabbed, burned, broken, sliced, beaten, smashed, drowned, dismembered, and worse. The only thing that tied these unsolveds together were Mr. K’s signatures: ball gags, salt in the wounds, and assorted, specific kinds of torture.
I wanted this guy. Wanted him bad. Unfortunately, hard evidence had always eluded me.
Ironic that I might have hard evidence very soon, but it would come at a very high cost.
I pushed away thoughts of death, concentrating on the here and now. I’d been awake long enough for my eyes to adjust, but it was still pitch black. Storage facilities usually had some kind of light, both in the units themselves and outside in the hallway. Since barely a sliver of light penetrated through any cracks, I assumed Mr. K either taped or filled in every corner of this space.
Total blackness was disorienting, making it impossible to focus on anything. But I was able to scoot toward the concrete block my legs were tethered to. I sat up, pushed myself backward against it, and explored the surface with my tingling fingers.
Too big and heavy to move. But it was square-shaped. While the edges weren’t exactly sharp, the concrete was unfinished, rough. Was it enough to cut through the nylon cord securing my wrists?
Only one way to find out. I flexed my arms, sawing my binding against the stone’s corner. I couldn’t see my progress, and might not have even been making any, but I had excellent motivation to try.
I’d seen Mr. K’s work up close and personal. And I knew what happened to the people he left in storage lockers.
Three years ago
2007, August 8
“You got anything to eat?” My partner, Detective First Class Herb Benedict, was rooting through my glove compartment.
Two blocks ahead, the man we’d been following turned his black Cadillac DTS onto Fullerton. I gave it a little gas and continued pursuit.
“Jack? Food? I’m starving here.”
Herb was as far from starving as I was from dating George Clooney. He had to be close to the three hundred pound mark. Herb, not George.
“I think there’s a box of bran flakes in the back seat somewhere.”
Herb shifted his bulk around, making my Nova bounce on what little shocks it had left. After some grunting, and several glistening sweat beads popping out on his forehead, he found his prize.
“Got it.” Herb cradled the cereal box in his hands like it was a kitten. Then he frowned. “They’re bran flakes.”
“That’s what I said they were.”
“Where’s the milk?”
“You eat them dry?”
I sighed. “No. I eat them with milk. They fell out of my grocery bag, and I keep forgetting to bring them into the house.”
“What am I supposed to do with these?”
“I have no idea. You asked if I had any food. I gave you what I had.”
Herb made a face. The Cadillac pulled over to the curb, a few hundred yards ahead of us, next to a warehouse boasting the sign “U-Store-It.” I parked alongside a fire hydrant and picked up the binoculars.
“Couldn’t you have at least bought raisin bran?” Herb asked.
“I could have. But I didn’t.”
“Who doesn’t like raisin bran?”
“My mother. They’re for her.”
Herb frowned. I peeked through the lenses and watched our person of interest exit his vehicle while Herb opened up the box.
“You’re kidding me,” I said, glancing at my partner.
“I gotta eat something. Look at me.” He patted his protruding belly. “I’m wasting away to nothing.”
Herb looked like he’d just eaten Santa Claus.
“We’ve got the rest of the day ahead of us,” I told him. “I don’t know if I want to spend it with you after you eat a box of bran.”
“I just want a few nibbles.”
My junior partner tore into the bag. I studied the surroundings. It wasn’t a good part of town. Industrial mostly, a few overgrown, fenced-in lots, some abandoned factories. Certainly not a place where a man driving a new Cadillac would hang out.
“What’s he doing?” Herb asked, his voice muffled by a mouthful of cereal.
“He’s walking over to a self-storage building.”
“Is he holding any milk? Because damn, this is dry.”
“He’s empty-handed.” I played with the focus. “Jacket is swinging funny on his left side. He’s packing.”
“Maybe he’s going to put it in storage.” Herb cleared his throat. “You got anything to drink? These flakes sucked up all my saliva. It’s like eating dust.”
“I might have a bottle of water left. Check between your feet.”
Herb rocked forward, trying to reach the floor. He failed. He tried again, bending even further, and then began to cough, spitting bran flakes all over my dashboard.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
I winced at the mess Herb had made. He tried once more for the water, stretching and straining, his face turning red with effort, and snatched the bottle. Herb held up his prize, triumphant. Then he frowned. “This is empty.”
“He went in.” I lowered the binocs. “Now we have a choice. We can wait for him to come out, then bust him, or surprise him inside and bust him.”
“I vote for waiting,” Herb said. “Less work. And if he’s going in for something, maybe he’ll come out with it.”
We waited. Herb did a half-assed job wiping the bran off the dash, then sucked down the remaining five drops of water at the bottom of my bottle.
“I had a weird dream last night,” Herb said.
“Speaking of non sequiturs.”
“You want to hear it or not?”
“Is this the one where you’re a caveman and everyone has a bigger spear than you?”
Herb raised an eyebrow. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I remember someone saying something like that once. Thought it was you.”
“It wasn’t. My spear is above average size, not that it’s any of your business. My dream was about lawn gnomes.”
“Yeah. A bunch of lawn gnomes.”
“What were they doing?”
“Nothing. Just standing there, looking gnomish.”
I pondered this for a moment. “And this is interesting because?”
“I dunno,” my partner said. “You think it means anything?”
“Dreams don’t mean anything at all, Herb. You know I don’t buy into that stuff.”
“You do lack a certain spirituality.”
I checked through the binoculars again. Our person of interest hadn’t returned. “I believe in facts, not superstition.”
“How about chance? Coincidence? Fate?”
“Fate is a future you didn’t work hard enough to change.” I read that on a blog somewhere and liked it.
“Come on, Jack. Weird things happen all the time. Unexplainable, cyclical things.”
“How about when you hear a new word, then a few days later you hear it again?”
“Give me an example.”
“The other day, on TV, someone said the word lugubrious. It means mournful.”
“I know what it means,” I said.
“Really? I had to look it up. Anyway, two days later, I’m at the butcher shop, and guess what word he uses?”
“Lugubrious. Things like that get me thinking. It’s like hitting your finger with a hammer, and then ten years later, hitting it again in the exact same place. You could have hit any other finger, or any other spot. But it was right smack-dab on the previous injury. What does that tell you?”
“That you shouldn’t be using a hammer.”
Herb shook his head. “I think that maybe, just maybe, there is some sort of grand scheme to everything.”
“You mean God?”
“I mean maybe the universe has a sense of irony.”
I didn’t agree, but I couldn’t completely disregard the comment either. Sometimes things did happen that could make you scratch your head.
“Think this guy might really be Mr. K?” I asked.
“Personally, I think Mr. K is an urban legend, started by one Dr. Horner to scare rookies and prove his BS about good and evil.”
I recalled that police academy lecture, and probably still had the notes from it.
“Over a hundred unsolved homicides, the only links being torture and ball gags,” I said.
“Why do they have to be connected? Because the Feebies say so?”
“You know my feelings about the Feds, Herb. But I’ve looked at these cases. The murder methods vary wildly, but there’s something about them that seems similar. Call it, I dunno, a tone.”
“Not every murderer is a serial killer, Jack.”
He was right. But I seemed to wind up dealing with more than my fair share.
Herb put his hand in the bran box again, going for seconds.
“If you spit bran in my car again, I’m firing you.”
“Like it’s my fault you don’t have any milk. I almost choked to death. Horrible way to die.” I endured more munching sounds. “Didn’t Mr. K choke his last victim?”
“Stuffed the guy’s junk down his own throat.”
“While it was still attached?”
“Would have been more impressive if it was still attached.” Herb ate more bran. “Jesus, this is dry. It’s like eating sand, but with less flavor.”
Herb put another handful into his mouth.
Finally I said, “I think we should go in.”
“I thought waiting for him was easier. Then we can grab him with whatever he brings out.”
“But if we get him now, then we can check out his storage space ourselves. Probable cause, no warrant needed.”
“I’m for staying in the car,” Herb said. “It’s hot out, and my feet hurt.”
He had a point. It was hot. And chances were high the warehouse wasn’t air-conditioned.
“Flip a coin?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Okay.”
I checked my purse but as expected didn’t find any change. I got rid of it whenever possible, not wanting to jingle when I walked. It used to annoy my ex-husband, Alan. I didn’t keep him, but I kept the habit.
“Got any coins?” I asked Herb.
“No. Vending machines are my nemesis.”
“I thought your shoelaces were your nemesis.”
Herb got a full aerobic workout whenever he tried to tie his shoes.
“A cop of my longevity makes many enemies throughout his career.”
“Check the ashtray.”
Herb checked while I took another look through the binocs. Nothing happening. I picked up the radio handset and called Dispatch, requesting possible backup.
My partner found something in the ashtray, but rather than flip it and call it, he popped it into his mouth.
“Did you just eat a dime?” I asked.
“Hell no. It was a mint.” He made a face. “I think.”
I tried to recall the last time I had mints in the car. It had been years. No, a decade, at least.
“It was a dime,” Herb said, sticking out his tongue. “I was fooled by the fuzz.”
I decided not to ask Herb why he would eat anything covered in fuzz. The radio crackled. Car 917 responded, saying they were en route. Approximate arrival in two minutes.
I made the executive decision. “We’re going in.”
“What happened to flipping a coin?”
“You ate the coin.”
“How about rock, paper, scissors?”
“You really don’t want to get out of the car, do you?”
Herb frowned. “What do we know about the guy? Sure, he’s got possible criminal associations and an expensive condo, but he hasn’t even gotten so much as a parking ticket, for chrissakes. His record is squeaky clean.”
“He’s carrying a gun.”
“Did you see a gun? Or just a bulge in his jacket? Maybe he was carrying an iPod, or a can of pop, or a magazine.”
“Or a lawn gnome.”
“Did you see a red, pointy hat? That would be eerie.”
“It was a gun,” I said.
“I’m just trying to protect you from a false arrest lawsuit.”
“God, you’re lazy.”
“I prefer the term cautiously inactive.”
“Okay. Rock, paper, scissors. One, two, three…”
I held out a flat palm: paper. Herb had a fist. Rock.
“Paper covers rock,” I said. “We go in.”
“Wait, it’s two out of three. It’s always two out of three.”
I sighed. “Okay. One, two, three…”
I held out paper again. Herb held out a single, chubby finger.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s a hot dog.”
“A hot dog?”
“I’m starving. I can’t get my mind off of food.”
“Again,” I said. “No hot dogs this time. One, two, three…”
I made a rock. Herb, paper.
“I win,” he said.
“You sure that’s paper, not a sirloin steak?”
“Mmm. Steak. Stop teasing me.”
“One more time. One, two, three…”
I held out scissors. So did Herb.
“My scissors are bigger,” he said. “I win.”
I said, “One, two, three…”
I had a rock. Herb stuck with scissors. I won.
“We’re going in.”
I hit the gas, driving the two blocks’ distance in about eight seconds, parking in front of the Cadillac. Then I dug my Colt out of my purse, checked the cylinder, and got out of my car. A moment later, Herb rocked himself out of his seat and onto the sidewalk.
“Be pretty funny if this was Mr. K, wouldn’t it?” he said.
“It would be the perfect gift to myself.”
“Oh, yeah.” Herb nodded, his three chins wiggling. “Your birthday is in a few days. You don’t have much luck with birthdays. Remember Classy Companions?”
My lips pressed together, forming a tight line. “I remember.”
Herb must have noted my expression. “Sorry, Jack. Didn’t know that was still a sore spot. I’m sure this birthday will turn out a lot better.”
“Can’t be any worse than the last twenty.”
Herb checked the clip on his Sig. “Okay. Let’s go do it.”
“Now? Backup will be here in a minute.”
“I bet you dinner the only thing he’s got in his jacket is a magazine.”
I nodded at Herb. “You’re on.”
We headed for the entrance, and I was feeling pretty optimistic. Maybe I’d finally have a decent birthday for a change. My fiancé was out of town on business, but closing a hundred unsolved homicides was definitely the way I wanted to spend my forty-seventh.
Besides, I was more than a little curious about what he was keeping in that storage locker.
2010, August 10
The man known as Mr. K holds up the iPhone and stares at the soft, green image on the touch screen. Jack Daniels rubs her wrists against the concrete anchor, her eyes wide and glowing in the night vision camera.
Her expression is one he recognizes well.
Fear. She’s afraid.
And she has good reason to be.
Their little dance has been going on for a long time. For the better part of both their careers. The ex-cop had gotten closer than anyone else ever had.
He taps the screen, bringing up the control dial. Twirling his finger, he adjusts the camera angle and zooms in to Jack’s hands.
She’s bleeding. The rope and the concrete are causing abrasions on her wrists. It will sting like crazy because he dusted the rope in salt before tying her up.
That’s only the first taste, Jack. There will be more pain to come. Much more.
Mr. K sets the iPhone up on a stand, so the image faces him. Then he picks the filet knife off the table.
It’s a tool he’s used on countless occasions, bought at a live bait store on Chicago’s South Side almost three decades ago. He’s sharpened it so many times, the blade is less than a centimeter wide. It looks more like an ice pick than a knife.
Mr. K tests the blade’s sharpness, touching it lightly to the back of his thumbnail. He’s able to draw a line across the lunula—the bottom of the nail—with barely any pressure. The knife is honed to a razor’s edge, so he puts it in its sheath and sets it aside.
Next he checks the propane torch. After a quick shake, he determines the handheld tank to be half full. That’s not enough fuel for what he has planned, so he unscrews the pencil-flame top from the canister and attaches it to a fresh tank.
The final tool on his workbench is a two-pound ball-peen hammer with a plastic composite shank extending from the stainless steel head down through the handle. This requires no fine tuning, so he lets it be.
Over the years, he’s used just about every device imaginable to inflict pain. He had a phase where he preferred power tools. A phase where he only used his gloved hands. For a two-year stretch, every murder he committed was done with a car jack; with wire ties it could be used to easily detach joints from sockets.
But after a lifetime of trial and error, he decided the simplest ways were ultimately the best. Cutting. Burning. Breaking. Everything beyond that was just showing off.
He glances at his iPhone again. Jack’s eyes are squeezed shut, her jaw muscles clenching down on the ball gag.
Think that hurts, Lieutenant? Just wait until tonight.
Because tonight, Mr. K will show off.
Twenty-one years ago
1989, August 16
The Cook County Morgue smelled like a butcher shop from Dante’s seventh circle of hell.
Underneath the acrid stench of bleach and spray disinfectant, there was the unmistakable odor of meat. But it was meat on the verge of going bad—the beginning stages of rot that all the chemicals in the world couldn’t completely mask.
I was standing in one of the autopsy rooms, staring down at the headless corpse of a naked Caucasian woman—the one we’d discovered in the Dumpster while chasing that bald john the night before. Her arms and legs were severed, but Medical Examiner Phil Blasky—a balding man with an egg-shaped head—had placed them in the appropriate spots along her torso.
I wondered if they would be sewn back on before burial, or if it didn’t matter, since she didn’t have a head.
I’d traded my hooker outfit for plainclothes—a gray, off-the-rack pantsuit I bought at Sears. It was too loose in the butt and too tight in the chest, and with my hair pulled back I looked somewhat like an effeminate man. Especially since I’d forsaken makeup, having had enough of the gunk caked on me yesterday. In the car ride over to the morgue, I spent five solid minutes trying to convince my partner, Harry McGlade, that I wasn’t a lesbian.
Harry nudged me with his elbow, then pointed to the dead woman’s chest.
“Look how perky they are, even in death. Think they’re even paid for yet?”
The corpse’s implants stuck out like two torpedoes. Except for their color—a very pale blue—they looked like they’d popped right out of the pages of Playboy.
“Maybe you should have that done,” Harry said. “You’re sort of lacking in that department, Jackie.”
“You forgot to take your pill today, Harry.”
“Your shut the fuck up pill.”
“And you’re seven kinds of stupid. You ever want to make detective?”
“Well, I do,” I said through my teeth as Blasky came back into the room. “So try to act like a cop.”
Harry saluted me. “Yes, sir.”
Asshole. I still couldn’t believe I got stuck with him as a partner.
Blasky stood across the autopsy table from us. He nodded at me. Unlike the old boys’ network back at the district house, Blasky treated me like a cop, not like a girl or a pretender to the throne.
“Do you know the cause of death?” I asked.
“I’m not a doctor,” Harry said, “but I’d put my money on the severed head and limbs.”
Blasky smiled condescendingly at Harry. “Then you’d lose your money,” Blasky said, his voice deep and commanding, not far off from Darth Vader’s. “The amputations were postmortem. CAT scan shows she died from internal hemorrhaging. Several major organs were pierced.”
“How?” Harry folded his arms across his chest. “There are no stab wounds at all.”
I was wondering the same thing, but then I noticed a trickle of blood seeping out between the woman’s legs.
“A sharpened broomstick,” I said.
Blasky raised an eyebrow. “That’s my guess as well. We’ll know for sure when I open her up. Why didn’t you think it was a sword? Or a poker?”
“Those would have damaged her labia.”
“What?” McGlade asked. “You mean someone stuck a…oh, shit…that’s sick.”
“Have you swabbed for semen?” I asked.
That didn’t rule out rape. Perp could have used a condom. The cause of death made this an obvious sex murder.
“Defense marks?” I asked.
The medical examiner shook his head. “No. No ligature marks either. I’m betting the blood work shows drugs.”
After discovering the body in the Dumpster last night, I’d stayed and watched the crime scene team do their work. They’d dusted for prints on the body and come up negative. They’d also scraped under the fingernails in the hope the victim scratched her killer and picked up some of his skin cells or blood. Chicago had adopted the new DNA profiling technique begun in England, and it could directly link a perp to a crime by determining a genetic match.
But if the victim were drugged to the point where she didn’t even need to be tied up while she was being assaulted, chances weren’t high there would be DNA evidence.
I put my hand in front of my face to stifle a yawn. After watching the crime scene guys do their thing, I’d had to write my report of the murder, as well as my report for arresting the john who hopped into the Dumpster after asking me to manipulate his prostate. As a result, I slept a total of two hours, and that was mostly tossing and turning. I’d been struggling with insomnia since graduating the police academy, but I was pretty sure it was a transitory thing.
At least, I hoped it was.
The door to the autopsy room opened, and two men walked in. Both were thin, both were older than McGlade and I. One was dressed like me—a cheap suit, barely concealing the shoulder holster. He had a thick, wide mustache that looked a lot like Teddy Roosevelt’s. I don’t think he could have appeared more like a stereotypical Homicide detective if he tried.
The other wore a gray suit that fit like it was made just for him and probably cost more than I earned in a month. He obviously wasn’t a cop, and he was kind of cute, in a strong-jawed male-model sort of way.
The cop eyed Harry and me, then held out his hand.
“Detective Herb Benedict, Homicide. Call me Herb.”
His grip was warm and confident.
“Officer Jacqueline Streng. Jacqueline is fine.” I hated when Harry called me Jackie.
“Who’s the suit?” Harry asked.
The good-looking man answered, “Armani.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Armani,” I said, extending my hand.
The man’s eyes twinkled. “The suit is made by a designer named Giorgio Armani. My name is Shell Compton.”
His grip was also warm and confident, but it lingered longer than Herb’s.
“This one of your whores, Shelly?” Harry asked, jerking a thumb at the corpse.
Shell’s face got hard, and he took his hand back and stared at McGlade. “None of the ladies who work with me are whores. They’re escorts, and what they chose to do with their clients is their business and perfectly legal.”
“Huh,” Harry said. “Never met a self-righteous pimp before.”
“Is he your partner?” Shell asked me.
Shell tilted his head to the side and whispered, so only I heard him. “I’m so sorry.”
Then we all turned our attention to the body. I watched Shell’s eyes, watched his look of shock turn to sadness when he noticed the tattoo on the corpse’s ankle.
“That’s Linda,” he said, shoulders sagging.
“You’re sure?” Herb asked.
“Tattoo on her ankle. Mole on her collarbone.” He turned away, glassy-eyed.
Herb flipped open a handheld notepad. “You reported Linda Candell missing yesterday. She’d been gone for forty-eight hours prior to that.”
Shell nodded. “Linda wasn’t flighty. She didn’t just disappear, and she’d never miss a date with a client. I tried to file a police report after she missed her first appointment, but I was told I had to wait two days.” He looked at the ME. “When did she die?”
Blasky clucked his tongue. “Hard to say. When I took her core temperature, it was seventy degrees. In that heat, in that dumpster, it should have been at least a hundred. I think, after she was murdered, the killer put her on ice. Not a freezer—there aren’t freezer burns. But someplace cold.”
I felt a shiver crawl up my backbone. Being horribly murdered was bad enough. Getting stuck in a refrigerator afterward, like meat, was one of the worst things I’d ever heard.
Shell must not have cared for the idea either. He excused himself and hurried out of the room. Herb tucked his notebook into his breast pocket and turned to me.
“How long have you been doing Vice stings, Jacqueline?”
“Yesterday was my sixth night.”
“Do you think you can do an undercover operation for longer than a night? Say, a week or two?”
I felt my pulse quicken, wondering if this would be my opportunity to finally work Homicide. Goodbye spandex skirts and slutty high heels. Hello respect and commendation.
“This is the third body in six weeks,” Herb continued. “Same MO. All escorts. Two of them worked for Shell.”
“He’s gotta be the killer,” Harry said. “I don’t trust guys who wear nice clothes.”
Both Herb and I ignored him. “You’re thinking I pose as an escort,” I said.
Herb nodded. “I’ve already talked to my captain. You’d be placed in Shell’s operation, working full time. He’s already agreed. We think it might be someone close to his business, maybe a client or a competitor. You wouldn’t have to do anything sexual. Shell was telling the truth; his escort service is simply an escort service, not a prostitution ring. You’d wear a wire the whole time, be under full surveillance—”
“I’ll do it,” I said, interrupting him.
Herb stared at me. He had a kind face, but his gaze was hard. “Wasn’t too long ago I was a uniform, eager to get into plainclothes. But this is serious, Jacqueline. The man doing this is a monster.”
I gave him a hard stare right back. “I’m in. This is why I became a cop.”
We held the intensity for a few seconds in silence, then Herb grinned. “Great,” he said, chuckling.
Was he mocking me? I folded my arms across my chest. “Is something funny, Detective?”
Herb shook his head. “Not at all. I just have this feeling we’re going to work well together.”
2010, August 10
I began to cry. My eyes stung like I’d been hit with mace. But the real sting was in my wrists.
The bastard had dipped the rope around my arms in salt.
As I sawed away at the edge of the concrete, determined to break the rope, it eventually began to rub my skin raw. The pain was quite extraordinary for such a superficial wound. I put it up alongside root canals and getting shot and breaking my leg.
Mr. K liked salt. It was a trademark of his, along with the ball gag.
I really have to get out of here.
I continued to work on the rope, tears streaming down my face, biting down on the rubber ball to help with the pain, trying not to think about Mr. K’s other trademarks.
The ones I’d seen firsthand.
Three years ago
2007, August 8
I walked briskly to the storage facility, minding each step so I didn’t scrape my Jimmy Choos. They weren’t the most appropriate footwear for police work, but a long time ago a man taught me that more people remembered style than deeds, and that stuck. Even so, I tried to overcompensate with deeds in an effort to compete with my boundless style.
Herb waddled behind me, wheezing. I slowed my pace just a tad, letting him catch up, trying to remember what he used to be like when he was thin. Back in the day, Herb Benedict could run a hundred meters in thirteen seconds. Now it would take him two minutes. Seven minutes if he had to stop to tie his shoes. Eighteen minutes if there was a hot dog stand on the route.
Merle’s U-Store-It was an ugly brown building, the dirty brick coated in graffiti so old even the taggers didn’t think it worthwhile anymore. It was a few stories tall, probably a converted warehouse or factory from the days when Chicago was an industrial hub. The entrance was a single metal door with a sign next to it, proclaiming they were open six a.m. until midnight, seven days a week.
The door opened to a narrow hallway, a bare forty-watt bulb stuck in the ceiling, which made the grimy walls look even dingier. A few yards down was the obligatory manager/watchman, behind a protective barrier of bulletproof glass that bore a few divots. Black guy, short beard, scar on his nose. At the moment, all the watchman was watching was a portable television set up on his desk. He didn’t even glance at us when we walked up, and I had to rap on the window to get his attention.
“New rental contracts are on the table,” he droned. “If you forgot your key, I need two forms of ID, and there’s a five-dollar charge.”
He still hadn’t looked at us.
“Police,” I said, fishing my gold badge from the pocket of my Tignanello handbag and clinking it against the glass.
“Police still gotta pay the five bucks.” He kept his eyes on the TV.
“We’re here to arrest the man who just came in. Did you see him?”
“Didn’t see nuthin’.”
I looked around the cubbyhole he used as an office. No security system. No surveillance equipment. If he didn’t see the guy, there was no way he’d know which storage unit he owned. This place was so low tech I was surprised the entrance had an electric lock.
“Buzz us in,” I said, using my cop tone.
“Got a warrant?”
I considered saying yes. It was doubtful he’d turn away from the television to check. Instead I said, “I don’t need a warrant. I’m arresting him for carrying a concealed weapon. You want some guy with a gun running around your building?”
“Ain’t my building. I just work here.”
Now I understood the reason for the bulletproof glass. I’d known this guy for less than thirty seconds, and I was overcome with a fierce desire to shoot him.
“Let me see some ID, sir,” I ordered.
Now he looked at me, his expression pained. “Why you got to hassle me, offa-sir?”
I was the one hassling him?
“Open the goddamn door, pinhead,” Herb said.
The watchman buzzed us in. Incredible. I’d been on the force for over twenty years and outranked Herb, but because he was a man he automatically got more respect. So little had changed since I was a rookie.
The metal security door opened. I walked through and saw a lobby, which boasted a metal garbage can, a freight elevator, a door that said STAIRS, and corridors going left and right. Above the elevator were lights indicating three floors.
“Cover the exit and call me,” I told Herb, digging my Bluetooth earpiece out of my purse and attaching it to the side of my head. “This may take a while.”
I went into the stairwell, figuring I’d start on the third floor and work my way down. The storage units here had garage-style doors, secured with padlocks. Even if he was inside his unit with the door closed behind him, all I had to do was look for the missing lock and I’d know it was his.
The stairway smelled dusty, like old drywall. I listened for movement, heard nothing, then took the concrete steps two at a time, unbuttoning the strap over the Colt in my shoulder holster. My earpiece buzzed and I pressed the
“They need to make these headsets bigger,” Herb said. “It’s too small for my fingers.”
“Maybe you need to make your fingers smaller.” I was on the second floor. I eased open the door and poked my head through, just to see if our man was around. He wasn’t, so I continued up the stairs.
“If this really is Mr. K,” Herb said, “what’s he storing here?”
“Maybe his money.”
One of the many persistent rumors circulating about the mysterious Mr. K was that he worked as a contract killer for the Outfit. With over a hundred unsolved murders attributed to him, perhaps he actually did need a storage locker to store all of his cash. Banks kept records of large deposits, and most of the mobsters I knew didn’t pay by check.
If Mr. K was a hired gun, he was an iceman. I’d dealt with a few serial killers over the years, and their motives made a warped sort of sense; hurting and killing people was exciting to them. But I believed contract killers, and contract torturers, were a whole different breed. If evil really existed, did it manifest itself in psychopaths who enjoyed inflicting pain on others? Or was it a trait of otherwise normal people who committed atrocities for money, because they were just following orders? Which was worse, killing because you liked it? Or killing because you just didn’t give a shit about humanity?
I stepped out of the stairwell onto the third floor, knowing I really didn’t need an answer to that question. My job wasn’t to psychoanalyze criminals. It was to catch them. And if our suspect was really Mr. K, it would be the high point of my career to put the bastard away.
The third floor hallway was empty in both directions, and I didn’t see any open storage units. I walked slowly, looking at padlocks. Every door had either a lock, or a metal band that sealed the unrented units.
I turned the corner, then stopped. A few yards ahead, one of the doors to a storage unit was open about a foot and a half, some light pouring through the bottom.
“Third floor, unit 345,” I whispered to Herb. “Ask the manager who it belongs to.”
I listened to Herb ask, heard mild protestations and more talk of warrants, and then my partner used some very bad language and the manager became cooperative.
“Cute,” Herb said. “It’s rented under the name John Smith. Paid for the month, and the deposit, with cash. I’m looking at his rental agreement. Listed his place of residence as 2650 South California Avenue.”
Cute was right. That was the address of the Criminal Courts Building, adjacent to Cook County Jail.
“Check on our backup. I’m approaching 345.”
I dug out my Colt, its weigh reassuring, and approached the storage unit on the balls of my feet so my heels didn’t click. This was one of the larger units, with an orange metal door that lifted overhead on rollers. It was three-quarters of the way closed, which meant it was open about eighteen inches. When I got within three feet I squatted down, checking to see if someone was standing inside. I didn’t see legs, but toward the rear of the storage area I caught a shadow of movement.
I aimed my weapon at the door. “This is Lieutenant Daniels of the Chicago Police. I’m ordering the man in unit 345 to come out slowly, hands in the air. This is a direct command from a police officer.”
I pressed my back against the door of an adjacent unit, out of the line of fire. Then I listened.
No response. No movement.
“I repeat, a Chicago police officer is giving you an order. If you don’t come out right now, hands in the air, I will open fire.”
I wasn’t going to open fire. I could just picture the inquest and subsequent suspension and lawsuit if I shot someone through the door to a storage unit. But nine times out of ten, suspects usually followed my commands.
I waited. Apparently this was a one out of ten situation. Setting my jaw, I eased myself over to the door, getting down on one knee, looking under the space between it and the floor. Again I saw movement, near the rear.
Without hesitating, I gripped the underside of the door and jerked it, sending it upward on its rollers, extending my gun hand with my finger on the trigger, moving fast into the space, ready for anything.
But I wasn’t ready for this. In twenty years on the force, this was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered.
“Jack?” Herb said in my earpiece. He said some other things as well, but I didn’t hear them because I was bent over, throwing up my breakfast all over my Jimmy Choos—something I hadn’t done since I was a rookie working Vice.
When I recovered, I checked the hallway both left and right, sweeping the area even though the perp was obviously gone. The only thing the storage unit contained was the IV stand, an empty tripod, the machine, and the misshapen, naked, dead man with the slit throat.
Then the dead man opened his eyes. I couldn’t hear his agonizing moan through the ball gag, but his pinched face spoke of unbearable pain.
I hurried to him, hitting the button on the infernal machine to stop the rotation even though I was potentially contaminating a crime scene. Then I pressed my hand to the gushing wound in the man’s neck, even as he thrashed away from my touch.
“Herb! Call an ambulance! And cover the exit, our perp—”
I heard Herb twice, first in both ears and then in one. I turned and saw him standing there, jaw open, staring at me and the vic.
Herb did what I’d done. He turned and puked.
My mind seemed to both slow down and speed up at the same time. If Herb was up here, there was no one covering the exit. We needed to catch that son of a bitch. But we also needed to save this poor bastard, which meant calling an ambulance. And I couldn’t take my hand off his neck, or off my gun, in case the perp came back.
“HERB!” I shouted with all I had. “AMBULANCE!”
He pulled it together, calling the paramedics on his radio, then calling backup to tell them to cover the car parked outside. Hot blood gushed through my fingers, down my arm.
“Backup’s still a minute away,” Herb said.
I thought about ordering him downstairs to try to head Mr. K off—because there was no doubt this was Mr. K—but I wouldn’t send him after that maniac without backup.
“Cover the hallway,” I said, tucking my gun into my holster and unbuckling the ball gag on the victim because he was blowing air through the hole in his neck.
As soon as the gag dropped free, he cried out in a voice that would haunt my nightmares forever.
“LET ME DIE! LET ME DIE!”
But I couldn’t let him die, even though he eventually did. I kept pressure on his neck wound, trying not to look at him, trying not to cry, not even able to talk soothingly to him as his life mercifully slipped away.
Twenty-one years ago
1989, August 16
“What we’re proposing,” Herb said, the beer in front of him untouched, “is deeper undercover than you’ve ever been before.”
We were in a local pub on Addison, sitting at a high, round table on high, round bar stools, squinting at each other in the low lighting and talking over the ten TVs showing local sports.
“We’re thinking at least two weeks,” Herb continued.
Harry snorted into his glass of Old Style, spraying foam across the table. “You not only want Jackie to pretend to be an escort, but to do it for more than a day or two? Gimme a break.”
I steeled my eyes at McGlade, wondering what I’d done in a previous life to deserve him. Maybe I’d been Joseph Stalin, or some other genocidal maniac.
“I’ve been doing undercover stings for two weeks now, McGlade. I can handle it.”
“You’ve been playing street whores, Jackie. All you need is a short skirt. Escorts are classy ladies. They dress nice. They talk nice. They look nice. You don’t wear makeup, and when you do doll yourself up, you put on your eye shadow with a paint roller and look like Big Bird from Sesame Street. And your clothes? Was Montgomery Wards having a sale on suits in the teenage boys department?”
It was Sears, not Wards. But I wasn’t about to give him any more ammo.
“We’re done,” Herb said. He was talking to Harry.
Harry raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“We want Jacqueline for this. Not you. I already cleared it. Go talk to your captain about reassignment.”
Harry blinked. Then he blinked again. “But Jackie’s my partner.”
“Was your partner. For this case, she’s my partner. Now I’ll let you sit here and finish your beer, but keep your mouth shut. I’m sick of hearing it.”
Harry got down off his bar stool, sticking out his chin. “I get it. You’re grumpy because your wife doesn’t give you any, and you didn’t have time this morning to rub one out in the shower. So now you’re pulling rank, getting your rocks off that way. Well, I’ve got better things to do than hang out in this dumb bar with you dumb people.” He nodded at me. “Good night, Jackie.”
Then he left our table, and sat down one table over.
“Was that guy dropped down the stairs as a baby?” Herb asked me.
“I think he was dropped down an escalator, and fell for three hours.”
Herb smiled at me. I decided I liked him, in a big brother kind of way.
I also liked our drinking companion, Shell. But in a way that decidedly wasn’t big brotherish. The guy I was dating, Alan, was a moody, artsy type, and his neuroses merged well with mine. Shell was polished and cocksure and easy to look at. The type of guy I secretly wanted to go out with in college, but who intimidated me with their charisma.
I was determined not to be intimidated this time. Even if it meant I had to sleep with him to get over it.
“So you think I can do this?” I was looking at Shell, not Herb.
Shell leaned over the table, his hands sliding forward so his knuckles brushed mine. “I do. I think you’ll be perfect.”
Herb drained half his beer, spilling a bit on his tie. “This isn’t like streetwalker stings, Jacqueline. Your obnoxious partner is right. We don’t know who’s doing this to Shell’s girls. Could be a client. Could be someone on the inside. Could be a stranger, stalking from the shadows. You’ll need to live the part. It means rooming with the other girls, talking to them like you’re one of them, actually becoming one of them. It means going out on dates.”
“But I don’t have to…”
“Make love to them?” Shell asked, offering a sly smile. “No. We’re a legitimate escort service. A real estate broker needs arm candy for his high school reunion. Mortgage banker needs a date to his niece’s wedding. Lonely widower doesn’t want to eat out alone. That type of thing. It’s all legitimate, and our clients are aware they aren’t allowed to hit on the girls unless the girl makes the first move.”
“How often does that happen?” I asked.
In the background, the bar broke out into cheers and applause.
“Some of our clients are rich, powerful men,” Shell said. “Some are famous. Whatever two consenting adults decide to do privately has nothing to do with me or my business, and it’s all off the clock.”
“Can you do this, Jacqueline?” Herb said.
I stared at Shell. “Yes.”
“You’d be living with the other girls. You might be away from home for a while.”
I thought about my crappy Wrigleyville apartment. “Not a problem.”
“If you have a pet, a cat—”
I shook my head. “I hate cats. I’d never own a cat.”
“Do you have any objections to starting tomorrow?” Herb asked. “Your captain said Homicide can have you on loan for as long as we need you.”
I struggled to suppress a giggle. Me? Working Homicide? That had only been my goal since joining the force.
“Tomorrow sounds fine,” I said, keeping a straight face.
“Great!” Shell clasped my hands, in a way that was both formal yet intimate. “Welcome to Classy Companions.”
“We’ll get started in the morning,” Herb said. “I can pick you up.”
“I’ve got a car,” I said. It was a Nova, only a few years old.
“Okay. Meet me at the station at eight a.m.”
“Sounds good.” I glanced at Shell. “What should I wear?”
“Something nice,” he said.
“How nice are we talking, here?”
“I’ll take care of that.” He gave my hands an extra squeeze.
“I’ll meet you both tomorrow,” Herb said. “In the meantime, I’ve pulled the victims’ files. I’d like you to take a look, see if you spot anything we missed. I’m anxious to hear your take on this.”
Herb pulled some files from his briefcase. He stacked them onto the table, pushing them over to me. If he’d called me the most beautiful woman on the planet, it couldn’t have flattered me more. My respect for Herb kept going up and up.
“I’ll get started on these right away,” I promised.
The waitress brought the bill to Herb, and he squinted at it, making a face.
“We didn’t order thirty-two shots of tequila.”
She smacked her gum and cocked out a hip. “Your friend did. The one who was sitting at the table next to you. He bought shots for everyone in the bar, but said for us to skip you guys because you were driving.”
Shell smiled politely and took the bill. I looked around for Harry, but he’d wisely made a quick exit. Annoying as he was, the guy did have a certain lowbrow style.
“See you tomorrow,” Herb said, standing up. “Partner.”
He stuck out his hand. I shook it gladly. Herb nodded a goodbye to Shell, then left the restaurant.
“He’s a good guy,” Shell said, running his finger along the edge of his beer glass.
“Seems like it,” I agreed.
“Has the metabolism of a hummingbird. Before we went to the morgue I watched him polish off three hot dogs with the works. I don’t know where he puts it. The guy should weigh three hundred pounds.”
I tried to imagine thin-as-a-rail Herb weighing that much, but just couldn’t see it.
“So tell me,” Shell said, leaning forward on the table so his knuckles brushed mine again, “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a career like this?”
I’d been asked that before, but never like that. Most people wondered what was wrong with me for wanting to be a cop. When Shell asked me, I felt like my job impressed him.
“Mom was on the force,” I said, leaning closer, letting our fingers meet. I liked it that Shell was confident enough to flirt with me, and wondered how far he would take it if I let him. “But she joined in the sixties. Women didn’t climb the ranks, and we didn’t get the due respect.”
“Is that what you’re looking for? Rank and respect?”
I answered without hesitation. “Yes.”
“What rank are you shooting for?”
“I’m going to make lieutenant by the time I’m forty.”
Shell ran his index finger over the back of my hand. “I’m sure you will.”
I probably should have pulled away. But Shell was attractive, and saying all the right things, and I was feeling bold and a bit reckless. My so-called boyfriend, Alan, hadn’t so much as called me on my birthday yesterday. That stung. Neither of us had said I love you yet, and even though he had a key to my place we’d never had the we’re exclusive talk. So if I wound up doing anything with Shell I wouldn’t be cheating.
But I wasn’t going to do anything with Shell. At least, not at that moment. I’d only met the guy two hours ago. I considered myself liberated, but that didn’t mean I was easy.
“So how about you?” I asked. “How did you wind up running an escort service?”
Shell’s lips formed a small grin, and he glanced away, back to some long-ago memory. “I’ve always liked the finer things in life. Food, wine, fashion, cars, hotels.” His eyes centered on mine. “Women.”
The way he said it made me feel like I was, indeed, one of the finer things in life.
“A few years ago I was dating a dynamite woman,” he continued. “Smart. Sassy. Beautiful. She was a model, but finding it increasingly difficult to find paying gigs. She told me she was considering becoming an escort to make ends meet, but was clueless about how to get started. I took it upon myself to help her. For my assistance, she gave me twenty percent of the escort money she earned. She also recommended I help some of her friends do the same thing. A business was born.”
“When was the first murder?”
Shell’s face clouded, and I was a little sorry I’d lapsed into cop mode. But I needed this information, and talking to someone who knew the victims would be more helpful than reading about them in police reports.
“A month ago,” Shell said. “Her name was Nancy. Nancy Slusar. Like Linda, she’d been…” Shell swallowed, “…hacked to pieces.”
“Did Nancy, Linda, or you have any enemies?”
“I gave Detective Benedict a short list. Three disgruntled clients. Several women I had to fire for inappropriate behavior. A guy who kept hanging around, wanting to date one of the girls.”
“How about business competition? How do you get along with the other escort services?”
“The girls often sign up with more than one service, to maximize the amount of dates they get. We’re mostly ambivalent about each other.”
“Mostly?” I probed.
“There is one service—the Dodd Agency—who has aggressively tried to pursue some of my girls, wanting them exclusively. I had to retain a lawyer to get them to stop it. I believe they’re Outfit owned and operated.”
“You know. The mob.”
I wished I’d had a notepad like Herb’s to write this stuff down. Instead, I committed it to memory.
“So.” Shell’s tone changed, from sad and guarded to flirty once again. “Are you ready to go shopping?”
“For clothing. You have to look the part for your photo.”
I had no idea where he was going with this. “What photo?”
“For your portfolio. Clients choose their dates based on a photo and a detailed bio. So we need to go shopping, get you something suitable.”
“I guess,” I said.
Shell dug into his wallet and dropped a hundred dollars on the table, more than covering the tab. “You don’t seem excited by the prospect. Most of the women I know love to shop.”
I put my elbows on the table, resting my face in my hands. “Most of the men I know love to work on cars. I can’t imagine you getting grease under your manicure.”
He smirked. “Touché. Those who buy Cadillacs can afford to pay someone to tune them up.”
“I could have guessed you had a Cadillac.”
“I love it. In fact, I love it so much I wouldn’t trust a mechanic to tune it up. So I do it myself. And this isn’t a manicure.” Shell held up his hand, spreading his fingers. “I’ve been successfully clipping my own nails for years now.”
I was surprised, and a little impressed. “I guess we were both wrong to stereotype.”
“Agreed. So what is it you do like doing, if I might ask?”
“Competition shooting. I’m the best marksman in the district.”
Shell raised an eyebrow. “Marksman?”
“The Chicago PD is still getting used to the idea that someone with boobs can shoot. All of my trophies have little gold men in Weaver stances on top of them.”
“I bet that pisses off your fellow law enforcement officers.”
“It does,” I said. “That’s why I do it.”
Shell stood up, holding out his hand. “So, Officer Streng, are you ready to piss off more of your coworkers by catching this psycho murdering my girls?”
I took Shell’s hand. “There’s nothing I’d enjoy more.”
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Check Back with Kindle Nation Daily for the Next Installment at 3 p.m. Friday, October 22
Click here to pre-order Shaken for $2.99 before its October 26 Release!
Check Back with Kindle Nation Daily for the Next Installment at 3 p.m. Friday, October 22
Click here to pre-order Shaken for $2.99 before its October 26 Release!