Madeline was on the run.
She should have known better. She really should have.
An insect --- a large bee or wasp --- whizzed past close to her ear as she skidded around a corner, her right foot almost slipping out of her low-cut sneaker. An instant later came a flat Blam! She knew he was shooting at her.
No doubt now as to what he’d had in mind in the car.
He’s trying to kill me!
Why? What did I do?
She was gasping for breath now, beginning to stumble from exhaustion as she ran down the dark street. Even late as it was, even in this neighborhood, somebody must be awake who would help her. Anyone!
Terror propelled her. Terror and the steady, relentless pounding of his footsteps behind her.
What caused this?
What’s this about?
If he gets close enough to take another shot...
Her right side was aching now. The pain was an enemy trying to bend her body forward so she could no longer run, no longer live. Her legs weren’t merely tired. They were be coming so numb that she could hardly feel any contact with the sidewalk.
Madeline was ready to surrender to the inevitable, and then she saw a shifting of shadow and a brightening at the next dark intersection.
A car’s coming!
Behind her, closer, the gun fired again. It sounded like the flat of one huge palm slapping against another. There was a finality to the sharp report.
It signaled the end of something.
Retired homicide detective Frank Quinn was having strong black coffee after his breakfast at the Lotus Diner on Amsterdam when a saggy-jowled man who looked like a well-tailored bloodhound sat down opposite him.
“I know I’m late,” the bloodhound growled.
“How so?” Quinn asked, sipping his coffee.
“If it were up to you, I’d have been here much sooner.”
Quinn didn’t answer. Overconfident people bored him.
The two men were almost exact opposites. The bloodhound, who was New York Police Commissioner Harley Renz, was not only saggy jowled but saggy bodied. He’d put on about forty pounds in the past few years, and the expensive chalk-stripe blue suit didn’t disguise it as workable muscle. All vertical stripes did for Renz was zigzag.
Quinn, on the other hand, was tall and rangy, with a firm jaw, a nose broken once too often, and disconcerting flat green eyes. His straight, gray-flecked dark hair was cut short, and recently, but, as always, looked as if a barber should shape it to suit a human head. If Renz was the bloodhound, there was something of the wolf in Quinn.
“You’re glad to see me,” Renz went on, “because you don’t like rotting in retirement at the age of fifty-five.”
Thel the waitress came over and Quinn said, “A coffee for my antagonist.”
“I haven’t had breakfast,” Renz said. “I’ll have a waffle, too. Diet syrup.”
“Stuff tastes like tree sap,” Thel said. She was a dumpy, middle-aged woman who’d never been pretty, so substituted being frank. It worked pretty well for her.
“The real stuff, then,” Renz said, grateful to be nudged off his diet.
Quinn listened for a moment to Upper West Side traffic flowing past on Amsterdam. Somebody just outside shouted an obscenity. Somebody leaned on a car horn and shouted back. New York.
“I’m rotting fast,” he said. “Why don’t you get to the point?”
“Sure. I need you and your team again.”
Quinn and the two detectives Renz had assigned to him on his last case had become media darlings by tracking down a serial killer aptly called the Butcher. Their success had also resulted in Renz’s swift climb up the promotional ladder to commissioner. He was, in fact, one of the most popular commissioners the city had ever known. In New York that meant he could do just about as he pleased, including yanking three detectives temporarily back into the NYPD as long as they were willing. He knew Quinn would be willing. And if Quinn was willing, so would be his two detectives. Like Renz, Quinn was a hard man to refuse.
“Why do you need us?”
Renz smiled. Still looked like a bloodhound. “In this city, Quinn, you’re Mister Serial Killer.”
“I’m not sure I like the way you put that.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Last time we went to work for you, you got promoted all the way to commissioner.”
“And you got your good name back and became a big hero. There’s something in this for both of us, Quinn. This for that. Tit for tat. That’s how the world works.”
“Well, that’s the one I live in.”
“What’s next for you, Harley, mayor?”
Renz shrugged. “Who knows?” He seemed serious. Quinn couldn’t see Harley as mayor. But then he hadn’t been able to see him as police commissioner, and there he sat. Police commissioner.
“What are the terms?” Quinn asked.
“Work for hire. It won’t interfere with your settlement or interrupt your retirement pay.”
Quinn wasn’t worried about the pay. Soon after the Night Prowler case, he’d gotten a large settlement from the city after having been falsely accused of raping a fourteen-yearold girl. Another cop had done it, and Quinn proved it. There was noplace Quinn could go to get his reputation back, so he settled for enough money to pay his attorneys and support himself comfortably with or without his pension.
“If I’m going to do it,” he said, “it’s got to interest me.”
“Oh, it will.”
Thel came over with Renz’s coffee and waffle, and maple syrup in a container that looked like one of those little liquor bottles the airlines give you.
“This,” Thel said, tapping the bottle’s cap with a chipped, red-enameled nail, “is good stuff. Straight from the tree.”
“I believe you, sweetheart,” Renz said.
When she’d walked away, he slathered his waffle with butter, then poured the little bottle’s entire contents over it.
“We’ve got us a serial killer,” he said to Quinn, “but the media’s not onto it yet. Except for Cindy Sellers, who’s sitting on it.”
“How many victims?”
“Doesn’t sound like enough to make a serial killer.”
“They were both killed in identical, distinctive ways.”
“Then you have the bodies.”
It wasn’t a question. Renz picked up knife and fork and attacked his breakfast. “Parts of them,” he said. “Well, that’s not quite accurate,” he amended through a mouthful of waffle. “We’ve got just their torsos.”
He swallowed, then smacked his lips together in appreciation. “This stuff is yummy.”
Which seemed a strange thing for a bloodhound to say, especially one who was police commissioner, but there it was.
Thel sashayed over with some more coffee immediately when Renz had forked in his last bite of waffle, probably because he’d called her sweetheart.
She returned to behind the counter.
“Shot with the same gun,” Renz said, pushing away his empty plate. He dipped a finger into the residue of syrup and licked, then took a sip of coffee. Not in a rush. Relishing his tale. “Twenty-two-caliber hollow point, through the heart.”
“Big enough. The M.E. says the wounds were fatal, but the victims might have taken a while to die. Could be they were finished off with shots to the head. Not having the heads, we wouldn’t know.”
“Nah. Pro wouldn’t go to all the trouble of dismembering the bodies.”
Quinn figured that was true. Then he cautioned himself not to come to any conclusions so soon.
“The other thing,” Renz said, “is that both women were sexually violated by a long, sharply pointed instrument. Not a knife, more like a stake.”
“Tell me that happened after they died,” Quinn said.
“It did according to Nift.” Nift was Dr. Julius Nift, a skillful but verbally brutal medical examiner. “Nift seemed disappointed by this glimmer of mercy in the killer.”
“More like convenience,” Quinn said. “Easier to bring down a victim with a bullet before going to work with a sharp instrument.”
“That’s why you the man,” Renz said. “You can slip right into the minds of these sick creeps.”
“Into yours, too.”
“You figure he does that thing with the sharp stake or whatever ’cause he can’t get it up?”
“There you go.”
Renz licked some more syrup off a finger and smiled at Quinn. “So whaddya say?”
“We’re on,” Quinn said. “I’ll call Feds and Pearl.”
Feds was retired homicide detective Larry Fedderman.
Pearl was...well, Pearl.
And that could be a problem.
Pearl was short and curvaceous, buxom, and even in her gray uniform looked almost too vivid to be real. Perfect pale complexion. Black, black hair and eyes. White, white perfectly even large teeth. And there was a kind of energy about her that seemed as if it might attract paper clips if she got close to them.
She watched the man over at the table where the deposit and withdrawal slips were filled out. He seemed to be taking a long time filling out whichever he’d chosen, and he kept glancing around the bank.
Sixth National Bank was an older institution and boasted lots of marble, walnut paneling, and polished brass. Behind the long row of tellers’ cages the great vault’s open door was visible, like the entrance to the nineteenth century. This was the kind of bank where if anything changed it was with the slowness of molasses dripping on a cold day, and you just knew your money was safe.
Pearl liked being a bank guard at Sixth National. It was like a relaxed version of being a cop. The uniform might be gray instead of blue, but it was a uniform. You spent a lot of time on your feet, and many of the required skills were the same. If only the pay were better. But she wasn’t complaining. She’d probably never remove the gun on her hip from its holster. Even if one of these days somebody like the dork at the walnut writing table really was casing the bank, or about to present a teller with a note informing him or her of a stickup.
And if it ever did happen, hell, Pearl was ready.
The guy who’d been writing so laboriously, a skinny dude with a sleeveless shirt and lots of tattoos --- the washed-out blue kind they got in prison --- finally left the table and sauntered over to one of the tellers. He handed the teller what looked like a deposit slip and some cash.
Pearl relaxed and moved back to stand against the wall, out of the way of the customers. She did keep a wary eye on Mr. Tattoos, though.
Her cell phone, on a belt clip near her nine millimeter, buzzed and vibrated. She tucked in her chin and glanced down at it, holding it at an angle so she could see the display.
She unclipped the phone and flipped up the lid so she could speak.
“Hello, Quinn,” she said simply.
“I’ve got a proposition,” said the voice on the phone.
“Been there, done that,” Pearl said.
Her gaze returned to the tattooed guy and the teller, a woman named Judy. Judy was twentyish and chubby and had a round, pretty face that usually didn’t display much emotion except at lunchtime. She was frowning now at Mr. Tats. Were they arguing?
“What kind of proposition?” Pearl asked, trying to hurry this along.
“Renz came by to see me. Seems there’s a serial killer operating in the city. The news hasn’t reached the media yet, but it’s about to pop. Cindy Sellers of City Beat is sitting on it and about to release it.”
Pearl remembered Cindy Sellers, a hard-ass little brunette who tended to move fast in straight lines.
Well, maybe the same could be said of Pearl.
“A serial killer could be harmful to Renz’s career,” Pearl said.
“Not if he’s responsible for nailing the killer. Or seems to be. Then his career gets a major boost. He wants me to reassemble the team and try to achieve that result.”
“He’s already police commissioner. What more does he want?”
“Long term, I don’t think we want to know. Whatever his motivation, he wants us on the hunt again.”
Throughout the conversation, Pearl had kept watching Mr. Tattoo and Judy. They were arguing. Judy’s round face was pale and she looked uncharacteristically furious, obviously trying to keep her cool. The guy with the tats was leaning toward her doing most of the talking.
“Yeah,” she said, angling over and beginning to move toward Judy and the skinny guy with the tattooed arms. Dozens of tattoos, kind of connected, what they called full sleeve. “Serial killer. Sounds interesting.”
“All the good guys have to work with are the victims’ torsos.
He also sexually mutilates the women with a sharply pointed object like a stake. I haven’t called Feds yet. You in?”
“Just their torsos, you say?”
“Right. Both women shot through the heart, and with the same gun.”
“Damn,” Pearl said.
Mr. Tattoo said something that made Judy flinch, then he wheeled and made for the door at a fast walk.
Pearl looked at Judy.
Judy looked at Pearl.
Judy looked at Mr. Tattoo and silently mouthed, “Stop him!”
“You in, Pearl?”
Pearl took two long strides, shoved a woman in a teller’s line aside, and made for the tattooed guy. “You,” she said softly but firmly, so as not to cause instant bedlam. “Stop right where you are.”
“What’s that, Pearl? What’s going on?”
She slipped the cell phone into a side pocket of her gray uniform pants and caught up with the tattooed guy. He glanced at her and broke into a run. Pearl tackled him and brought him down on the hard marble floor, bumping her elbow hard enough that her right arm went numb. Customers were moving fast, like dancing shadows, on the periphery of her vision. A woman screamed.
“Hey, you bitch!” yelled the tattooed guy, scrambling to get up.
Pearl kicked his legs out from under him.
“Hey!” he yelled again and scooted backward out of her reach. Didn’t try to get up, though.
She fumbled for her gun and couldn’t get it out of its holster. Hell with it. She crawled over and turned Mr. Tats on his belly and reached around for her handcuffs. He wasn’t resisting. The kick in the legs she’d given him might have sprung one of his knees.
“Miss Kasner!” a woman’s voice was saying. “Miss Kasner, don’t hurt him! Please!”
Pearl looked up to see Judy standing over her. Behind Judy, all around the lobby, the bank’s customers were frozen by fear. Some of them were on the floor like Pearl and the tattooed guy.
“You asked me to stop him,” Pearl said to Judy. “Didn’t he try to rob the bank?”
“No. He just robbed me by refusing to give me my child support money. He’s my ex-husband, is all, not a bank robber.”
Pearl struggled to her feet, furious. The pain in her elbow flared. “Why the hell did you ask me to stop him?”
“I dunno. I just did.” Judy began to cry.
“I’m gonna goddamn sue you!” snarled the tattooed guy, sitting up now and glaring at Pearl.
“Sue me? You’re lucky I didn’t --- ”
Another voice. That of Copperthwaite, the bank manager. “When Judy calms down I’d like to see both of you in my office.”
“I-I’m okay.” Judy sniffled and used the back of her wrist to wipe her eyes, which were blackened by running mascara, making her look like a distraught raccoon. She kneeled low and brushed a lock of hair from Mr. Tats’s forehead.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Pearl swore, dusting herself off and rubbing her sore elbow.
Yet another voice. Very faint. Familiar.
Oh, yeah. Quinn.
Pearl fished the cell phone out of her pocket and held it to her ear.
“I’m in,” she said.
Fedderman wondered if he’d retired too soon. He was the youngest of the golf foursome from the Coral Castle condo project on Florida’s serene and scenic southwest coast. It was like paradise here except for hurricane season, and Fedderman knew he should be happydespite the fact that his wife, Blanche, had left him ...what, a year ago now. It seemed much shorter. All he had to do in life was collect his pension and lie around the condo or play golf. Being retired, he was supposed to like just lying around. He was supposed to like golf.
He was supposed to like fishing, too, but frankly some of the things he’d caught in the ocean while deep-sea fishing scared him. Not to mention the seasickness.
“Hit the damned ball, Larry!” Chet, one of his foursome, shouted.
Fedderman looked back at him and waved. His drive had taken him off the fairway and into the rough, which was to say high saw grass that would cut your hand if you tried to pull up a clump. It was a miracle he’d even found the damned ball.
Never a man whose clothes quite fit, Fedderman’s tall and lanky yet potbellied form even made his golf outfit look like it belonged on someone else. One sleeve of his blue knit pullover seemed longer than the other, and his muted plaid slacks made him look as if he were standing in a brisk wind even though the weather was calm. And hot. And humid.
As he approached the ball, Fedderman slapped at a mosquito and missed. His seemingly mismatched body parts made for an interesting golf swing as he took a practice swish, then moved closer and slashed the ball out of the rough. It rose neatly toward the green, carrying Fedderman’s hope with it, then suddenly veered right as if it had encountered the jet stream and landed among some trees.
“You missed the sand trap, anyway!” Chet shouted. Fedderman was learning to dislike Chet.
Fedderman’s shot again. His three fellow golfers were already on the green. He was isolated in what seemed a forest of palm trees near a running creek. There was his ball. Not a bad lie, on a stretch of grass that wasn’t so high, because the sun never reached it beneath the closely grouped palms.
Something moved near the creek. Fedderman stared but saw nothing in the tall grass. He’d heard about alligators on the golf course but had never seen one, even on his frequent journeys into the rough. Still, he was sure he’d seen some kind of movement not human and it gave him the creeps.
He quickly approached his ball and set himself. He’d
have to keep the shot low and get the ball between the trunks
of two palm trees if he even had a chance to get near the barely visible green.
“Shoot the ball!” Chet yelled. “Shoot the ball, Larry!”
Shoot you, you dumb bastard!
Movement again, in the corner of his vision. There sure as hell was something over there in the shadows.
Fedderman took a quick practice swing, then hurried his shot.
He really nailed this one. Solid. It felt great.
The ball flew about ten feet, bounced off a palm trunk, and rocketed straight back and hit Fedderman in the head.
He threw down his club and clutched his skull, then staggered out into the searing sunlight. His cleated golf shoes snagged in the tall grass and he almost fell. Chet was yelling something, maybe laughing.
He had to get out of here! Had to!
Fedderman’s cell phone chirped.
Excerpted from NIGHT KILLS © Copyright 2012 by John Lutz. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.