by Jaye Maiman
From the murky bayous of New Orleans to the rat-infested subways of New York City, P.I. Robin Miller is trapped in a heartpounding race against time…and evil. A brilliant and brutal serial killer is on the loose and, with a new love unfolding, Robin has her own urgent reason to find the murderer—before he finds her!
Robin Miller Mystery Book 6.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1997..
|Publication Date||June 14, 2018|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
He’d been following her so long, her perfume had soaked into the fabric of his shirt, mingled with his sweat. This would be the best one yet. He’d take his time, do it right. Maybe it wouldn’t even happen at the hotel. He could’ve done her right outside the restaurant, after she stopped yapping with that copperhead. Oh, he could’ve done them both right then, the two of them whispering like they were queens of the earth. But no, she had to be alone. Patterns had to hold. He chuckled to himself. What fools they were.
She dropped a cigarette and ground it, beneath her heel. Their eyes almost met for an instant as she turned the corner, and he grew hard in response. This one had long legs, thick calves. But she didn’t walk fast. She walked like she had time on her hands, like life was waiting for her. Maybe they’d end up near Congo Square, Armstrong’s armpit, oh, it’d be so right. He could carve “Widow of Paris” on her back.
No, that would be too much, too soon. The game had to be played right.
The knife was cold in his pocket, the statue the perfect size. He hefted it in his hand and floated after her shadow.
Monday, May 3
Sunlight cut through the shutters and ran soft, hot fingers over my cheeks. I half-opened an eye and smiled. From the room service cart at the foot of the bed rose the spicy aroma of last night’s Café BrÛlot. I could still taste the rich combination of cloves, cinnamon, citrus, cognac and strong, black coffee. I burrowed my face into the sheets and remembered the abandon of the last twelve hours.
In the French Quarter of New Orleans, sensory overload is a daily mandate. Days begin with a deceptive quiet: a click of solitary heels on flagstone, clear and distinct. The cough of a solitary car motor. The squeak of a window pressed open against the damp morning air, which instantly beads up on the cold glass and leaves glistening trails, each as slender as a frog’s tongue. By early afternoon, Bourbon Street begins to percolate again, a slow boil that builds into a scalding, inescapable steam. Moody jazz, pounding rock and exuberant zydeco collide into one another and make music of a fifth dimension. The air smells of stale beer, fried oysters and sweat.
New Orleans is at once one of the most exhilarating and one of the most depressing cities. It is the experiential equivalent of cocaine: a narcotic that dulls pain and induces paper-thin elation. The city fools even the most sex-phobic men and women into believing they have the potential for bestial eroticism. The first hit of the city is intoxicating, producing a thrilling sense of abandonment. You have the sense you’ve entered the biggest party of your life, a Disneyland of decadence. But then the high wears off and you see the squalor, you feel the emotional void at the center.
Lovemaking takes on a different heat. Frenzied, desperate and unbridled, people fall into bed and grind limbs as if passion itself existed only here, in the dark, throbbing heart of the French Quarter. As if sunrise threatened to slice through the fervor and expose the hollowness beneath. I should know. I’ve been under the knife a few times myself. On my last trip here, many years ago, I fooled around with a woman on a park bench in Jackson Square, both of us so drunk it didn’t matter whether we climaxed or not. Neither of us expected to remember sensation by morning. My father had just died and my lover, Mary, had announced her decision to leave me and move out West. My grief and outrage at the time loomed too large for Yoo-Hoos and Twinkies to vanquish. New Orleans had provided me with a black hole in which I could lose my discontent, or, at least zone it out.
Since then, I’ve found that there are different kinds of happiness. One you can apply superficially, like a coat of gawdy cosmetics, and another that your body, heart and soul assimilates like nutrients drawn from food. New Orleans supplies people with a feel-good sensation akin to cheap, dime-store cosmetics. Now, cosmetics don’t always look as good to others as you think they do. And after a day, even the best makeup job looks like crap. But as my L.A. buddies would say, that was then and this is now. And now felt a lot closer to Elysian Fields than I’d ever been.
I was in New Orleans to celebrate the debut of Les Enfants, the new restaurant run by PBS cook K.T. Bellflower and the renowned Cajun chef Winston Hawkins. In truth, K.T.’s only contribution to Les Enfants was a lockbox of coveted recipes, two former sous chefs and a check that carried more 0s than you need to win tic-tac-toe.
It was nearly noon, which meant we must’ve had less than six hours of sleep. K.T. was already in the shower, humming some God-awful country tune. I couldn’t be sure, but it sounded as if she was singing about the hubcaps of her heart. She’d been doing that a lot lately, singing. Yesterday it was “Let Me Entertain You,” sung with a rose clasped between her teeth, a scarf her only adornment. K.T’s a big Gypsy fan. Me, I’m just learning to appreciate the score. By the way, K.T. did not need a gimmick to get applause.
I should point out that my relationship with K.T. didn’t have one of those picture-perfect launches, the kind of stranger-across-a-crowded-room romances that causes the eyes of close friends to roll in mock disgust. The truth is, witnessing someone else’s unbridled new love can make even the strongest stomach kick around a few olive pits. Panic fists into your brain as you clamp down a second too late on the question: Did I ever feel that way about—? Go ahead, fill in the blank. We’ve all been there. Not that I didn’t suffer whiplash from my first glance at K.T. I did. But we had danced one of those dysfunctional tangos, tripping all over each other’s best intentions, until finally, the band packed up its instruments and went home. I came to my senses in the dead of winter, just as I was about to nail a kidnapper and succumb to pneumonia. Days later I woke up in a hospital. K.T. reentered my life just as my I.V. drip ran out.
Maybe it was the rattle in my lungs she found irresistible. Or it could’ve been the way my skin took on the sheen of overcooked tuna. Whatever it was, K.T. fell back in love with me while I was stretched out butt-naked on a hospital bed. At any other time, I would’ve resisted. But there’s something amazingly sobering about those little plastic name tags hospital clerks snap onto your wrists to distinguish you from other chattel. Somewhere around three in the morning, in a dim hospital room that smelled of dead flowers and dirty linen, I realized that the harder I ran, the faster I ended up where I began. So Robin Miller, one-time famous romance writer and now fearless private eye, decided to settle down.
There was a snag, of course.
* * *
The bathroom door opened and K.T. emerged, a teal towel wrapped around her torso and another turbaned on her head. Under the guise of sleep, I scrutinized the woman I’d been seeing exclusively for eleven weeks. She stood before a floor-length mirror, delightfully unselfconscious, and shook out her hair. It’s naturally curly, shoulder-length and the color of lion fur in an African sunset. Her eyes are hazel and her nose freckled. She has strong, square shoulders and farmer-stock hands. At that moment, the skin covering her five-seven curvaceous frame had a just-scrubbed luster. Ah, but when she dropped the second towel, the snag revealed itself.
Her belly had the slightest swelling, one that I might not have noticed if last night had been our first time together. More telling yet was the color and size of her nipples: dark as coffee beans and very pronounced. K.T. was almost exactly twelve weeks pregnant.
We had just started round two of our relationship when the EPT dipstick turned blue. If you think I kicked up my heels in jubilation, you probably believe in fairy tales and J.F.K.’s monogamy. I went absolutely slack-jawed. Sure I knew K.T. had been trying to get pregnant. She’d been trying all the months we’d been separated. Seven, to be exact. Long enough for her to start worrying that it was never going to happen. Long enough for me to pretend everything would stay the way it used to be. After all, at thirty-seven and counting, K.T.’s no young puppy, at least in terms of fertility. But fate has the humor of a bad Saturday Night Live skit. Just one week into new-relationship heaven, an embryo dug into my honey’s uterus and thumbed its nose at me. Sure, I could’ve booked. But I was, and am, hopelessly in love. So K.T’s going to be a mother, and I’m going to be something as yet undetermined.
She patted herself dry and reached into the closet for her jeans. I propped myself up on one elbow and said, “Hey, no underwear?”
Those leaf-green eyes smiled at me. “Honey,” she said, “this is the Big Easy, remember?” Her voice normally carried a mere trace of her West Virginia origins, but when she wanted me to melt, she turned it on like a roaring campfire.
I said, “Come back to bed.” The purr I tried to emit sounded like a ’64 Chevy idling. My mouth needed toothpaste and coffee, preferably in that order.
“Can’t. I’m on a mission.” She spiked her arms into an Opera in the Park T-shirt. “I woke up craving beignets from Café du Monde. And I am bound and determined to get us some.”
“First time in ten weeks, so you can understand why there’s no time for donning undies.”
I threw aside the sheets as she wiggled into her sandals. “Wait for me. I’ll come with you.”
“With you looking like that? No way. Besides, I’m feeling energetic this morning. If I wait even half a second, I may revert to my previous slug state.”
I edged onto my knees and checked out my reflection. I’m five-nine, olive-skinned and, at thirty-four, not as tautly muscled as I used to be. The two months I’d spent in bed while recouping from pneumonia had added a stubborn ten pounds to my frame. My dark hair is cut in short, choppy locks, all of which were pointing straight up at the moment. My breasts bore imprints of the sheets. Capping the picture, the ragged scar above my left eye had sunburned on yesterday’s paddleboat ride down the river.
KT. almost cackled. “I love you, but I don’t want to be seen with you. At least, not yet. Shower. Order some coffee. Become human.” She opened the door, knelt down and tossed me a copy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I’ll be back before you finish your first cup of café.”
I scampered to the door, tucked myself to one side so my naked butt wasn’t visible to the hall, and grabbed her by the waist. Our kiss was sweet, the good-bye kiss of an established couple.
“Save some room for me,” she said with a wink.
If I had known what was coming, I would’ve never let her out that door. But that’s how life works. One minute, you’re humming a tune and basking in sunshine, and the next minute, splat! You’re crud under someone else’s shoe. I don’t care if you call that someone else God, kismet, your ex-lover or a serial killer. All I know is that when the drop comes, you go down hard.
Some people are terrified of roller coasters. Not me. At least you know when you’re going to take a nosedive. What terrifies me is happiness.
I called room service, took a quick shower and put on a pair of shorts and a tank top. The coffee arrived a minute later. I sprawled on the unmade bed, took a hefty sip of the chicory-laced brew and spread out the newspaper. The entertainment section featured a full-page spread on Les Enfants. K.T. and Winston looked exuberant, clinking together vintage Flintstones glasses bubbling with sparkling cider. The restaurant reflected the owners’ personalities. Both had contributed items from their individual collections of toys from the Fifties and Sixties. Every table had a Slinky or an Etch-A-Sketch. The menu featured new spins on old classics: clumpy mashed potatoes laced with rosemary and whole cloves of garlic, an amazing gumbo that smelled of sassafras and andouille sausage, wood-oven roasted lamb shank with sundried tomatoes, Creole ratatouille and a Bananas Foster equal to foreplay. I should have stopped with the rave review, but instead I flipped back to the main section.
DEAD HERO COP’S EX FOUND SLAIN IN HOTEL ALLEY
The headline caught my eye immediately. Blood rushed into my belly as I read on. The woman’s name was Lisa Rubin, 39, a journalist from Berkeley, California. She was in town to settle the estate of her ex-husband, Peter Strampos, a local beat cop. He’d been killed a week ago while attempting to stop a thirteen-year-old from raping his next-door neighbor. Rubin was found tucked between garbage cans in an alley behind the Hotel Roi, on the outskirts of the French Quarter. She was sodomized, clubbed, then stabbed to death. An egg was cracked open on the back of her head.
My hand shot to the phone. I dialed so fast the first time, I got the wrong number. The next time, I got the station.
“He’s not here,” a civic drone informed me.
I hurried to the closet, retrieved my address book, then dialed his home number. “Ryan, is that you?” I blurted when I heard a click on the other end.
“Let’s see, you call my house, then quiz me on my identity. I must be talking to a master detective.” He sucked in his breath. “Robin Miller, I presume.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was drunk. But Detective Thomas Ryan has been stone sober since his wife was brutally murdered in a San Francisco hotel nearly nine years ago. Given his years in Homicide, the safer bet was that he was drop-dead exhausted. I took a breath and said, “I think it’s happened again.”
Through the wires, I heard a distant foghorn. The sound instantly transported me back to San Francisco and my first anguished investigation: the death of my ex-lover, Mary. Ryan had been the thorn, then the balm in my side. Somehow, over the past four years, he’d come to be a close friend, a rough-edged bear of a man who treated me more like a daughter than my own father ever had—which wasn’t hard considering that my father ceased talking to me when I was three years old, after I accidentally discharged a gun and murdered my sister Carol.
“Are you still in New Orleans?” he said at last. “Shit, you have to be. Only the local rag’s covering this. What’d you read?”
I was too stunned to respond.
“Hey, Miller, I need an answer. What does the Picayune say?”
I shuffled back to the bed and read the article to him in full.
“Morons.” Ryan snorted. “Even when it’s one of their own kind. A cop would never do that. Give me the byline.”
I read it to him.
“Not that some dumb-ass editor’s gonna understand why announcing so many fuckin’ facts could screw the case up so good, no cop’s gonna be able to unravel it. Hell, a story’s a story, right?”
“Ryan, cool down. How’d you know about this? It only happened last night.”
“Last night was a long time ago, hon.”
My coffee cup was empty. I filled it to the brim, took a sniff and waited for him to continue.
He said, “So maybe Serra’s taught you something after all, huh?” Tony Serra’s my partner in the detective agency. Ryan set us up years ago. “Look, Robin, my Mary’s been dead for nine years. There’s not a month that goes by that I don’t wonder if this is the case that’s gonna fish out the scumbag that did my wife. Not a month. I got a buddy working with me who’s got contacts in the FBI, every major police department in this country. First Monday, every month, one or both of us make the rounds. At this point, if we stopped making the calls, most of our contacts would call us. ’Cept the FBI, those uptight suckers still don’t see the connections. Too many inconsistencies, right? Bullshit. They got a murderer who’s smarter than all their stiff blue asses combined, that’s the problem.”
“Yeah, right. Time’s blood. I just got off the phone with Remillard…he’s the only Fed who’ll give me half a second these days. And even Remy keeps telling me he needs more. What more does he need? A woman gets raped or sodomized in a hotel, murdered, and somewhere near her body, the investigators find eggshell. How many times can they say it’s coincidence? This makes six.”
“The MOs do differ.”
“Don’t you start—”
“Miller, you’re still a juvie to homicide, right? But tell me this, if you wanted to commit a series of murders, would you repeat the same pattern again and again? Hell, no. You’d make sure there were enough variations so no one could nail you down.”
“But then why does he keep choosing hotels?”
“And planting fuckin’ eggshells? Because he’s a fucking sick asshole, ’cause he wants to give us just enough to get the blood going, to get someone thinkin’, maybe, maybe, there’s a connection. This guy’s laughing at us, Miller. I swear, sometimes at night, I can hear this fucker. These murders are a joke to him.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
His answer was abrupt. “Yeah, like I’ve told you and Tony for years, stay out of it.”
“I’m down here, Ryan. I can—”
“Stay out of it. You think you’re hot shit because you’ve handled a murder or two. You’re a pissant novice. I got someone on this for me. If it pans out, I’ll fly down myself if I have to. You wanna do something for me, go back to New York. Check on my daughter. She’s dating a defense lawyer. Now, there’s a snake you can wrestle.”
“Ryan, I’m not as green as you think. I can look into this without getting in over my head.”
“I said, I have someone on it.”
“Give me a name.”
“Okay, I’ll call Tony and get the name from him.”
“Aw, crap. Can’t you leave this alone?”
I took a breath. “I owe you. It’s time you let me and Tony pitch in.” Without Tom Ryan’s help, I never would have resolved the murder of my ex-lover. I’d still be churning out tawdry romances with titles littered with words like flaming, churning and untamed desire and wondering why I began and ended each day with a hollow ache in my belly. With Ryan, I glimpsed what it might’ve been like if I’d had a father in my life instead of a brooding, silent phantom who reversed directions anytime he encountered me. I didn’t just want to help him out, I needed to.
“Ryan,” I said, “police headquarters is right across the street from where I’m staying—”
“Oh, no you don’t. The NOPD is a ripe old men’s club. You stick your head in and they’ll blow you and the investigation away, just for the hell of it. They are strictly Sweeney’s territory.”
“Okay, okay, but at least let me in on what’s happening. I’m telling you that one way or another, I’m going to check into this. Now, if you’re smart, you’ll take this opportunity to have some modicum of control—”
“Nothing like a friendly threat.”
“Seriously, I can help out, even if it’s only from the sidelines. K.T.’s tied up with the restaurant opening, and I could use the distraction. Besides, I’m wired to the max. Serra Investigations has gone hightech. I’ve got a laptop, modem, fax, subscriptions to databases of every size and shape. I even have a few research CD-ROMs with me. Give me a name in a published telephone directory anywhere in this country and I can get you an address, birth date, voting record, you name it.”
“You made your point.” There was a weighty pause. “Well, I gotta admit, Theo’s a damn good foot solider, but he’s a Luddite. I can barely get him to use the phone.” He sucked in his breath. “Maybe this could work. You’ll let him handle the field work, right? Exclusively.”
“This guy’s good, Miller. He used to work with me on the force, and he’s stuck to this investigation all these years just out of loyalty to me. Half the time I think he’s as skeptical as anyone else, but he stays on top of what’s happening no matter what. He doesn’t need you up his ass when he’s on the streets, got me?”
“Ryan, you’re as clear as glass. What’s his name?”
“Theobald Sweeney. Make fun of the name and you’re talking to dead air.”
“No comment, sir. You’ve mentioned him before. Anything else I should know about him?”
“Like I said, we go back a long time. We started out as drinking buddies. Heavy drinking buddies. Then we took the sober road together…nothing like traveling to hell and back with somebody to forge a bond. Him and his wife separated, then she passed away, this was almost a year before Mary. Actually, Celeste killed herself…Man, Sweeney was wrecked by that. You wouldn’t guess it by seeing him now, but when he was in love, he was an absolute pussycat. After Mary’s murder, I finally understood the kind of guilt he had to be carrying in his gut. I dragged him to AA with me. Shit.” Silence buzzed in my ear. I couldn’t begin to imagine the nightmare Ryan must be remembering. I waited for him to continue.
“Anyway,” he said. “I gotta warn you, he’s rough around the edges. But his bark’s much worse than his bite. You gonna think he’s the biggest right-wing asshole you could ever meet, but meanwhile his wife Celeste was black. Talk about guts. Try to imagine what life must’ve been like for him, a good old Southern boy marrying out of his race. In Louisiana. In the Sixties. Despite what he may say to you, he’s as liberal as anyone I know who was born and raised in the bayou. And when it comes to detective work, Rob, he’s the best.”
Ryan’s description made me think twice about offering to partner up with this guy. Reluctantly I asked, “Does he work out of San Francisco?”
Ryan laughed. “He works out of his car, most of the time. He has a fishing cabin up near the Russian River, his uncle still owns a place down in New Orleans, he winters with his sister in St. Louis and spends part of the year in New York. He’s a nomad, which has served my purposes just fine. You’ll hate him.”
“Thanks for the warning. Wonder how you describe me.”
“You don’t want to know”
“Gotcha. Can you e-mail me information on the murders?”
“A summary, maybe…the rest is hard copy. I’ll put it in the mail.”
“I’m at the Royal Orleans.” I read off the address and number from the phone base.
“Okay, Miller. I’ll have him call you.”
“Sooner rather than later,” I injected.
“When he needs you. Stay safe, Miller. And let Tony know I’ll pay your standard rates. No freebies, okay? This way, if I have to fire you, I can do it without guilt. Tell Tone to send me a contract right away.”
“He’ll love that.” Tony’s an ex-cop with a penchant for quoting the Bible, stacking pennies in tall, neat rows and finding lucrative corporate clients. He also would’ve charged his own mother if she wanted us to conduct a credit search. He’s just that kind of guy.
“So how’s the old bastard doing?” Ryan asked.
“Not so good.” My partner contracted HIV nearly a decade ago. For the most part, he’d been remarkably symptom-free. Until last summer. To make matters worse, he suffered a minor stroke a few months back. “Tony’s working from home most days,” I said. “His new command central. On the other hand, he’s finally allowed me to pull in a new crew of temps, whom he dispatches with the grace of Patton. The man won’t go without a fight.”
“Good for him. Me, I’d’ve blown my brains out years ago.”
He laughed. “Maybe you’re right. Well, tell him I said, ‘Fuckin’ A,’ for what it’s worth.” Ah, the cryptic language of men.
It wasn’t until he hung up that I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. K.T. had been gone close to an hour. Café du Monde wasn’t that far. I threw open the shutters. The balcony overlooked the corner of Royal and St. Louis. I leaned out, hoping to see K.T. trotting back with a grease-stained bag of beignets. The street was crowded with tourists wandering between restaurants and antique shops. I started to breathe harder and caught the stench of manure from the horse-drawn carriages parked in nearby Jackson Square. Bitter, coffee-tinged juices surged up from my stomach and singed my throat. Where the hell was K.T.? I clenched the iron railing, Suddenly remembering how careful I’d been not to rest my weight on her belly when we made love last night, how she murmured into my neck, “It’s okay, honey. You won’t hurt me.” Despite her assurances, I hoisted myself up on my elbows and knees, thinking, the baby can feel me.
“Hey, you, whooee!”
My head jerked in the opposite direction. K.T. was approaching from Bourbon Street. She waved a bag at me and winked. In an instant, every muscle in my body sagged. I waved back. Then an abrupt motion behind her caught my eye. A man wearing gray slacks and a white shirt had been matching her gait too closely. When she stopped suddenly, he caught himself, pivoted and crossed the street. Then just as suddenly his pace slowed, became deliberately casual. He even paused to window-shop. I knew the tactic. I’ve used it myself to recover from a tail I’d blown. The stab in my chest was no longer heartburn.
The bastard had been following K.T.