Prologue | DIE YOUNG AND LEAVE A BEAUTIFUL CORPSE
IT’S NOT EVERY DAY THAT I GET A NAKED GIRL ANSWERING THE DOOR I knock on.
Don’t get me wrong—with twenty years of law enforcement under my belt, it’s happened. Just not that often.
“Are you the waiters?” this girl asked. There was a bright but empty look in her eyes that said ecstasy to me, and I could smell weed from inside. The music was thumping, too, the kind of relentless techno that would make me want to slit my wrists if I had to listen to it for long.
“No, we’re not the waiters,” I told her, showing my badge. “Metro police. And you need to put something on, right now.”
She wasn’t even fazed. “There were supposed to be waiters,” she said to no one in particular. It made me sad and disgusted at the same time. This girl didn’t look like she was even out of high school yet, and the men we were here to arrest were old enough to be her father.
“Check her clothes before she puts them on,” I told one of the female officers on the entry team. Besides myself there were five uniformed cops, a rep from Youth and Family Services, three detectives from the Prostitution Unit, and three more from Second District, including my friend John Sampson.
Second District is Georgetown—not the usual stomping grounds for the Prostitution Unit. The white brick N Street town house where we’d arrived was typical for the neighborhood, probably worth somewhere north of five million. It was a rental property, paid six months in advance by proxy, but the paper trail had led back to Dr. Elijah Creem, one of DC’s most in-demand plastic surgeons. As far as we could make out, Creem was funneling funds to pay for these “industry parties,” and his partner in scum, Josh Bergman, was providing the eye candy.
Bergman was the owner of Cap City Dolls, a legit modeling agency based out of an M Street office, with a heavily rumored arm in the underground flesh trade. Detectives at the department were pretty sure that while Bergman was running his aboveboard agency with one hand, he was also dispatching exotic dancers, overnight escorts, masseuses, and porn “talent” with the other. As far as I could tell, the house was filled with “talent” right now, and they all seemed to be about eighteen, more or less. Emphasis on the less.
I couldn’t wait to bust these two scumbags.
Surveillance had put Creem and Bergman downtown at Minibar around seven o’clock that night, and then here at the party house as of nine thirty. Now it was just a game of smoking them out.
Beyond the enclosed foyer the party was in full swing. The front hall and formal living room were packed. It was all Queen Anne furniture and parquet floors on the one hand and half-dressed, tweaked-out kids stomping to the music and drinking out of plastic cups on the other.
“I want everyone contained in this front room,” Sampson shouted at one of the uniforms. “We’ve got an anytime warrant for this house, so start looking. We’re checking for drugs, cash, ledgers, appointment books, cell phones, everything. And get this goddamn music off!”
We left half the team to secure the front of the house and took the rest toward the back, where there was more party going on.
In the open kitchen there seemed to be a big game of strip poker in progress at the large marble-topped island. Half a dozen well-muscled guys and twice as many girls in their underwear were standing around holding cards, drinking, and passing a few joints.
Several of them scrambled as we came in. A few of the girls screamed and tried to run out, but we’d already blocked the way.
Finally, somebody cut the music.
“Where are Elijah Creem and Joshua Bergman?” Sampson asked the room. “First one to give me a straight answer gets a free ticket out of here.”
A skinny girl in a black lace bra and cutoffs pointed toward the stairs. From the size of her chest in relation to the rest of her, my guess was she’d already gone under the knife with Dr. Creem at least once.
“Up there,” she said.
“Bitch,” someone muttered under his breath.
Sampson hooked a finger at me to follow him, and we headed up.
“Can I go now?” cutoffs girl called after us.
“Let’s see how good your word is first,” Sampson said.
When we got to the second-floor hall, it was empty. The only light was a single electric hurricane lamp on a glossy antique table near the stairs. There were equestrian portraits on the walls and a long Oriental runner that ended in front of a closed double door at the back of the house. Even from here I could make out more music thumping on the other side. Old-school this time. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House.”
Watch out, you might get what you’re after.
Cool babies, strange but not a stranger.
I could hear laughing, too, and two different men’s voices.
“That’s it, sweetheart. A little closer. Now pull down her panties.”
“Yeah, that’s what you call money in the bank right there.”
Sampson gave me a look like he wanted to either puke or kill someone.
“Let’s do this,” he said, and we started up the hall.
“POLICE! WE’RE COMING IN!”
Sampson’s voice boomed over everything else. He gave one hard pound on the paneled mahogany door—his own version of knock and announce—and then threw it open.
Elijah Creem was standing just inside, looking every bit as pulled together as the pictures I’d seen of him—slicked-back blond hair, square cleft chin, perfect veneers.
He and Bergman were fully dressed. The other three—not so much. Bergman had an iPhone held up in front of him, taking a video of the freaky little ménage à trois they had staged there on the king-size sleigh bed.
One girl was laid out flat. Her bra was open at the front, and her bright pink thong was down around her ankles. She was also wearing a clear breathing mask of some kind, tethered to a tall gray metal tank at the side of the bed. The boy on top of her was buck naked except for the black blindfold around his eyes, while the other girl stood over him with a small digital camera, shooting more video from another angle.
“What the hell is this?” Creem said.
“My question exactly,” I said. “Nobody move.”
All of them were wide-eyed and staring at us now, except for the girl with the mask. She seemed pretty out of it.
“What’s in the tank?” I said as Sampson went over to her.
“It’s nitrous oxide,” Creem said. “Just calm down. She’s fine.”
“Screw you,” John told him and eased the mask off the girl.
The buzz from nitrous is pretty short lasting, but I didn’t assume for a second that it was the only thing these kids were on. There were several blue tabs of what I assumed was more XTC on the nightstand. Also a couple of small brown glass bottles, presumably amyl nitrate, and a half-empty fifth of Cuervo Reserva.
“Listen to me,” Creem said evenly, looking me in the eye. As far as I could tell, he was the ringleader here. “Do you see that briefcase in the corner?”
“Elijah? What are you doing?” Bergman asked, but Creem didn’t respond. He was still watching me like we were the only two in the room.
“There’s an envelope with thirty thousand dollars in that case,” he said. Then he looked pointedly from a brown leather satchel on the antique setback cabinet, over to one of the three windows at the back of the bedroom. The fringed shades were all drawn, but it was pretty clear to me what he was going for.
“How much time do you think thirty thousand dollars is worth?” he said. He was unbelievably cool about the whole thing. And arrogant. I think he fully expected me to go for it.
“You don’t seem like the climb-out-the-window type, Creem,” I said.
“Ordinarily, no,” he said. “But if you know who I am, then you know I’ve got quite a bit at stake here—a family, a medical practice—”
“Six and a half million in revenue last year alone,” I said. “According to our records.”
“And then there’s my reputation, of course, which in this town is priceless. So what do you say, detective? Do we have a deal?”
I could tell he was already halfway out that window in his mind. This was a man who was used to getting what he wanted.
But then again, I wasn’t a seventeen-year-old girl with a self-image problem.
“I think my partner put it best,” I told him. “What was it you said, John?”
“Something like screw you,” Sampson said. “How old are these kids, Creem?”
For the first time, Dr. Creem’s superior affect seemed to crack right down the middle. His silly grin dropped away, and the eyes started moving faster.
“Please,” he said. “There’s more cash where that came from. A lot more. I’m sure we can work something out.”
But I was already done with this guy. “You have the right to remain silent—”
“I don’t want to beg.”
“Then don’t,” I said. “Anything you say can and will be used against you—”
“For Christ’s sake, you’re going to ruin me! Do you understand that?”
The narcissism alone was kind of staggering. Even more so was the cluelessness about what he’d done here.
“No, Dr. Creem,” I said as I turned him around and put the cuffs on. “You’ve already done that to yourself.”
TWO MONTHS TO THE DAY AFTER ELIJAH CREEM’S UNFORTUNATE SCANDAL broke in the headlines, he was ready to make a change. A big one. It was amazing what a little time, a good lawyer, and a whole lot of cash could do.
Of course, he wasn’t out of the woods yet. And the cash wasn’t going to last forever. Not if Miranda had anything to say about it. She was only speaking to him these days through her own attorney, and he hadn’t been allowed to see Chloe or Justine since the future ex–Mrs. Creem had packed them off to her parents’ house in Newport. Word from the lawyer was that they’d be finishing out the school year there.
The silence from the girls had been deafening as well. All three of his blond beauties—Miranda, Justine, Chloe—had swiftly turned their backs on him, just as easily as closing a door.
As for the medical practice, there hadn’t been a consult, much less a booking, since it had come out in the press that Dr. Creem (or Dr. Creep, as a few of the less savory rags were calling him) had traded surgical procedures for sex with more than one of Joshua Bergman’s unfortunately underage protégées. Between that, and the little video collection Creem had accumulated on his home computer, there was still the very real possibility of a jail sentence if they went to trial.
Which was why Elijah Creem had no intention of letting that happen. What was the old cliché? Today is the first day of the rest of your life?
Yes, indeed. And he was going to make it count.
“I can’t go to prison, Elijah,” Joshua told him on the phone. “And I’m not saying I don’t want to. I mean, I can’t. I really don’t think I’d make it in there.”
Creem put a hand over the Bluetooth at his ear to hear better, and to avoid being overheard by the passersby on M Street.
“Better you than me, Joshua. At least you like dick.”
“I’m serious, Elijah.”
“I’m joking, Josh. And believe me, I’m no more inclined than you are. That’s why we’re not going to let it come to that.”
“Where are you, anyway?” Bergman asked. “You sound funny.”
“It’s the mask,” Creem told him.
“Yes. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. There’s been a change of plans.”
The mask was an ingenious bit of latex composite, molded from human forms. The very newest thing. Creem had been experimenting with it since the scandal broke, and his own famous face had become something of a social liability. Now, as he passed the plate-glass window in front of Design Within Reach, he barely recognized his own reflection. All he saw was an ugly old man—sallow skin, sunken cheeks, and a pathetic remnant of dry, silver hair over a liver-spotted scalp. It was spectacular, actually. Poetic, even. The old man in the reflection looked just as ruined as Dr. Creem was feeling these days.
Dark-rimmed glasses masked the openings around his eyes. And while the lips were tight and uncomfortable, they were also formfitting enough that he could talk, drink, eat—anything at all—with the mask on.
“I didn’t want to let you know until I was sure this would work,” Creem told Bergman, “but I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“What do you mean? What kind of surprise?” Bergman asked.
“Joshua, do you remember Fort Lauderdale?”
There was a long pause on the line before he responded.
“Of course,” he said quietly.
“Spring break, 1988.”
“I said I remembered,” Bergman snapped, but then softened again. “We were just a couple of fetuses then.”
“I know it’s been a while,” Creem said. “But I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m not ready to just go quietly into the night. Are you?”
“God no,” Bergman said. “But you were the one who—”
“I know what I said. That was a long time ago. This is now.”
Creem heard his friend take a long, slow breath.
“Jesus, Elijah,” he said. “Really?”
He sounded scared, but more than that he sounded excited. Despite the mousy tendencies, Bergman also had a wonderfully twisted streak. He’d always been more excited by the murders than Creem.
For Creem, they’d been cathartic as much as anything else. A means to an end. And this time around, he had a whole new agenda.
“So...this is really happening?” Bergman said.
“It is for me,” Creem told him.
“Right now. I’m waiting for her to come outside as we speak.”
“And, can I listen?”
“Of course,” Creem said. “Why do you think I called? But no more talking. Here she comes now.”
CREEM POSITIONED HIMSELF ACROSS THE STREET FROM DOWN DOG YOGA AS the seven forty-five evening class let out. Among the first to emerge onto Potomac Street was Darcy Vickers, a tall, well-proportioned blonde.
He couldn’t take credit for the tall or blond part, but as for the well-proportioned elements, those were all thanks to him. Darcy’s ample bust, the perfectly symmetrical arch of her brows and lips, and the nicely tapered thighs represented some of Dr. Creem’s best work.
Not that Darcy Vickers had ever expressed the first drop of gratitude. As far as she was concerned, the world was populated with her lackeys. She was a typical specimen, really—a K Street lobbyist with a steroidal sense of entitlement and a desperate need to stay beautiful for as long as possible.
All of it so very familiar. So close to home, really.
He waited outside Dean & Deluca while she ran in for whatever it was women like her deigned to eat these days. He watched while she held up the line at the register, talking obliviously away on her cell phone. Then he crossed the street again, to follow her down the quaintly cobblestoned alley toward the garage where Darcy’s Bimmer was parked.
There was no need to keep too much distance. He was just some geezer in a windbreaker and orthopedic shoes—all but invisible to the Darcy Vickerses of the world. By the time they reached the deserted third level of the garage, he’d closed the gap between them to less than twenty feet.
Darcy pressed a clicker in her hand, and the Bimmer’s trunk popped open with a soft click. That’s when he made his move.
“Excuse me—Miranda?” he said, half timidly.
“Sorry, no,” Darcy said, dropping her grocery bag and purple yoga mat into the trunk without even a glance.
“Funny,” he said. “You look so much like her.” When the woman didn’t respond, he stepped in closer, crossing that invisible line of personal space between them. “Almost exactly like her, in fact.”
Now, as she turned around, the annoyance on her face was clear, even through the Botox.
“Listen,” she said, “I don’t mean to be rude—”
“You never do, Miranda.”
As he came right up on top of her, she put a hand out to deflect him. But Dr. Creem was stronger than the old man he appeared to be. Stronger than Darcy Vickers, too.
His left hand clamped over her mouth as she tried to call out.
“It’s me, sweetheart,” he whispered. “It’s your husband. And don’t worry. All is forgiven.”
He paused, just long enough to see the surprise come up in her eyes, before he drove the steak knife deep into her abdomen. A scalpel would have been nice, but it seemed best to stay away from the tools of his own trade for the time being.
All the air seemed to leave Darcy Vickers’s lungs in a rush, and she collapsed forward, bending at the middle. It was a bit of work to get the knife out, but then it came free all at once.
With a quick sweep of his leg, Creem kicked her ankles off the ground and lifted her into the trunk. She never even struggled. There were just a few gurgling sounds, followed by the glottal stoppage of several half-realized breaths.
He leaned in close, to make sure it would all reach Bergman’s ears over the phone. Then he stabbed again, into the chest this time. And once more down below, opening the femoral artery with a swift, L-shaped motion, so there could be no chance of recovery.
Working quickly, he took a hank of her long blond hair in his hand and sawed it off with the serrated edge of the knife. Then he cut another, and another, and another, until it was nearly gone, sheared down to where the scalp showed through in ragged patches. He kept just one handful of it for himself, tucked into a Ziploc bag, and left the rest lying in tufts around her body.
She died just as ugly as she had lived. And Dr. Creem was starting to feel better already.
When it was done, Creem closed the trunk and walked away, taking the nearest stairs down toward M Street. He didn’t speak until he was clear of the garage and outside on the sidewalk.
“Joshua?” he said. “Are you still there?”
Bergman took a few seconds to answer. “I’m...here,” he said. His breath was ragged, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Are you...” Creem grinned, though he was also a little disgusted. “Joshua, were you masturbating?”
“No,” his friend said, too quickly. Bergman had an ironic sense of modesty, all things considered. “Is it done?” he asked then.
“Signed, sealed, delivered,” Creem said. “And you know what that means.”
“Yes,” Bergman said.
“Your move, old pal. I can’t wait to see what you cook up.”
Copyright © 2013 by James Patterson