Quinn had found a box of paper clips in his bottom desk drawer and was just straightening up when the dead woman entered his office.
She’d startled him, the way she’d come in without making any noise.
She wasn’t what you’d call beautiful, but she was attractive, with slim hips and legs inside new-looking stiff jeans, small breasts beneath a white sleeveless blouse. Her shoulder- length hair was brown, her eyes a deeper brown and slightly bulbous. She had symmetrical features with oversized lips, a slight overbite. A yellow file folder stuffed with what looked like newspaper clippings was tucked beneath her left arm. Her right hand held a brown leather shoulder bag, the strap scrunched up to act as a handle. She’d said on the phone her name was Tiffany Keller. If she were still alive, Quinn thought, she’d be pushing thirty.
There was a kind of grim resolve to her expression, as if she’d just been affronted and was about to fire back.
The generous mouth suddenly arced into a toothy smile, and the dogged expression disappeared entirely, as if a face like hers couldn’t hold such a visage for long. Quinn was left with the impression that he’d momentarily glimpsed someone else entirely.
“Captain Frank Quinn, I presume.”
“Just Quinn,” he said. “Like the lettering on the door, Quinn and Associates Investigations.”
“I was aware you were no longer with the NYPD,” she said.
“Want to sit down?” he asked, motioning with a paper clip toward one of the walnut chairs angled in front of his desk.
“I’ll stand, thanks.” Her smile widened. “I’m Tiffany Keller.”
He continued staring at the woman while his right hand groped for the empty glass ashtray he used to contain paperclips. “You said when you phoned earlier to make this appointment that you were Tiffany Keller. Would you be the same Tiffany Keller who was a victim of a serial killer?”
“That would be me.”
Unable to look away from her, he turned the tiny box upside down and dropped the paper clips into the ashtray, hearing the faint clickety sound that told him he’d hit his glass target. “Excuse me, but aren’t you dead?”
Wondering where this was all going, Quinn tossed the empty paper-clip box into the wastebasket inside the desk’s kneehole. It landed on recently shredded paper and didn’t make a sound. “What is it you want, Tiffany?”
“I want you to find the Carver.”
The Carver was a serial killer who’d taken five victims, the last one five years ago, and then suddenly ceased killing. In the way of most serial killers, he’d slain only women. His victims’ nipples had been sliced off and a large X carved on their torsos just beneath their breasts. Then their throats had been cut.
At the time, Quinn had been laid up after being shot in the leg during a liquor store hold-up, and hadn’t been involved in the Carver investigation. He’d followed it in the papers and on TV news with a temporary invalid’s distracted interest. It had been one of his few alternatives to staring at the ceiling. If he remembered correctly, Tiffany Keller had been the Carver’s last victim.
He leaned back in his desk chair and studied his visitor more closely.
She didn’t wilt under his scrutiny.
“Actually I’m Tiffany’s twin sister,” she said.
“Then why the act?” he asked.
She smiled even wider. Lots of even white molars. Quinn would bet she’d never had a cavity. The large white smile gave her a kind of flashy cheerleader look. It would dazzle you even in the cheap seats.
“I thought one of the Carver’s victims herself appealing to you to take this case might be more convincing,” she said. She spoke with a hint of accent, her intonations flat and slightly drawn out. She wasn’t from the Northeast. Probably someplace Midwestern. Corn country. “I’m Chrissie.” Ahm. “Chrissie Keller. My twin sister and I were named after two of our mom’s favorite eighties recording stars, Chrissie Hynde and Tiffany.”
“She didn’t use a last name. Some artists don’t.”
“Some artists I’ve met don’t, either,” Quinn said.
“Like pickpockets and confidence men and such?”
“Uh-huh. And impersonators.”
“I didn’t have to impersonate Tiffany,” she said. “I just wanted you to think that maybe, for only a second or two, you were face-to-face with her. A victim asking that her killer be brought to justice.”
“An emotional appeal.”
“You got it.”
“Justice is a hard thing to find in this world, Chrissie. Sometimes even hard to define. It can be a lot of work and expense, and then we might not like it when we find it.”
“Or we might glory in it.”
Never having been in her position, Quinn found it difficult to disagree.
“I have the means to pay you for your work,” she said. “And what I want to do with my money is find out who killed Tiffany and make sure he pays for his crime. This might sound strange, but I think that’s why I have the money. Why I won the Tri-State Triple Monkey Squared Super Jackpot.” She shifted her weight in the stiff jeans so she was standing hip-shot. “That’s three monkeys in a row three times,” she said with a note of pride.
“You did that?” he said, figuring she must be talking about slot-machine winnings.
She swiveled back and forth on the foot her weight rested on, as if idly crushing a small insect. Her shoes were rubber sandals that looked as if they must hurt her feet. “I surely did. With a lucky quarter, and a good reason to win the hundred and thirty-nine thousand dollars.” Her face broke into the big smile. “That’s still a lot of money after taxes.”
“Even here in New York,” Quinn said. He leaned back again in his chair, farther this time, making it squeal a warning that it might tip and send him sprawling, make him pay for flirting with danger. He said, “Now you’re on a mission.”
“That I am, Mr. Quinn. Don’t tell me to go to the police, because I already have. They’re not interested. The Carver murders happened too long ago, and I got the impression the police don’t want to be reminded of a serial killer case they never solved.”
“Bureaucracies hate being reminded of their failures.”
“I’m not interested in what they hate or don’t hate. I’m interested in justice for Tiffany.”
“People on a mission scare me,” Quinn said, thinking he had a lot of room to talk. But what he’d said was true. He sometimes scared himself. “You’re not from New York.”
She looked a little surprised and licked her big red lips. “It shows that much?”
“Not a lot,” Quinn said. He tapped a forefinger to his cheekbone beneath his right eye and smiled. “Trained observer.”
Chrissie pulled the chair closer to the desk and sat down. She crossed her legs tightly, as if she were wearing a skirt and not jeans, or as if she thought Quinn might glimpse too much denim-clad thigh and go berserk and attack her. “I’m from Holifield, Ohio. So was Tiffany, of course. It’s a small town. Most folks work for the chemical plant or for Tread- strong Truck Tire Manufacturing. Tiffany worked in the plant for a while; then she came here to New York to try to become an actress. She got killed instead.” A firm expression came over Chrissie’s face. Her lips compressed together over her protruding teeth and paled, but only for an instant. “I want that rectified.”
“That, too. You should know, Mr. Quinn, that when one twin dies the other also dies a little. And the way Tiffany died...well, it’s almost like it happened to both of us. Twins’ deaths are special.”
“Everyone’s death is special to them.”
Chrissie leaned forward in her chair, her hands cupped over her knees. She had long fingers, well-kept nails. No rings. “The police called the Carver investigation a cold case, Mr. Quinn. I want it heated up again. I want my mission to be your mission.”
“You need to give this some thought,” Quinn said. “The NYPD cops aren’t fools. Most of the time, anyway. They couldn’t solve the Carver murders five years ago.”
“I’ve read about you, Mr. Quinn. When it comes to serial killers, you’re smarter than the police. Smarter than anyone.”
“Now you’re making me blush.”
“I doubt if much of anything does that,” she said.
“Now you’ve reverted to insult.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I was referring to your experience, the fact that you’re a winner.”
“Praise again. I’m getting whiplash.”
“I’ll put my faith in you, and my money on you,” Chrissie said.
“Investigations go into the cold-case file; time passes.... They get harder to solve. I couldn’t promise you much.”
“I’m not interested in promises,” Chrissie said. “Just results. Like you are.” The smile came again, a red slash of amusement that broke into speech. “They say you’re only interested in results, that you skirt the rules in ways an actual cop couldn’t. That you’re a hunter who never gives up.” She edged even farther forward in her chair, as if she might spring across the desk and devour him with her big smile. “What do you say?”
“I give up. What do I say?”
“You say yes, of course.”
“I guess I shouldn’t have left it up to you.”
He watched her pick up her worn leather purse from where she’d leaned it against the chair leg and reach into it for her checkbook.
He didn’t try to stop her. For all he knew she was right. Right and lucky. That was why she’d won the Tri-State Triple Monkey Squared Super Jackpot.
What had he ever won?
It had all been so quick, and the eye could be fooled.
Pearl Kasner, acting as hostess, stood off to the side in the dim entrance alcove of Sammy’s Steaks, unsure of what she’d just seen.
She’d waited patiently, making sure she was on the periphery of Linda’s vision. A slender and tireless young woman with hair that dangled in natural ringlets around her ears, Linda was one of the busier food servers at Sammy’s. The customers were crazy about her.
As she ran another diner’s credit card, Linda casually drew what looked like a small black box from her pocket, laid it on the counter, and swiped the card a second time.
Back went the box into her apron pocket.
It was all done so quickly and smoothly that you had to be watching for it, looking directly at it, to notice it.
Pearl edged back completely out of sight and smiled.
She’d been right when she’d noticed Linda the first time. Whenever Linda was alone settling a diner’s check, she would run the card twice, once legitimately, the second time to record the card’s number in the device she carried concealed in her apron pocket. For several days, the customers’ names and card numbers could be used safely to purchase merchandise. When finally the diners realized what was happening and notified the credit card company, they wouldn’t be likely to connect the stolen number with a not-so-recent steak dinner at Sammy’s.
Pearl left the foyer unattended and weaved her way between white-clothed tables and across the restaurant. She was slightly over five feet tall, with vivid dark eyes, red lips, and black, black shoulder-length hair. Pearl drew male attention, and when attention was paid, said males saw a compact, shapely body with a vibrant energy about it. Her ankles were well turned, her waist narrow. She had a bust too large to be fashionable, but only in the world of fashion.
No one who looked at Pearl was disappointed.
She approached a booth where a lanky but potbellied man in a wrinkled brown suit lounged before a stuffed mushroom appetizer and a half-empty martini glass. He was past middle age and balding, and the day Pearl started pretending to be a hostess, he had started pretending to be a slightly inebriated customer who ordered appetizers as an excuse to drink alone. That was better than drinking at the bar, where the mostly under-forty club was watching and discussing baseball. Discussing it loudly and sometimes angrily. They could really get worked up over steroid use.
The solitary drinker was Larry Fedderman, who had long ago been Quinn’s partner in an NYPD radio car, and later his fellow Manhattan South homicide detective. Fedderman, retired from the department, had been living in Florida when Quinn founded Quinn and Associates. Pearl had been working as a uniformed guard at Sixth National Bank in Lower Manhattan.
They’d both stopped what they’d been doing and went to work for Quinn as minority partners in Quinn and Associates Investigations. They were the associates.
Restaurateur Sammy Caminatto had hired QAI to discover how his cousin’s Visa card number was stolen, when the only place he’d used his new card and new number, before cutting the card into six pieces to keep it out of his new trophy wife’s hands, was at Sammy’s.
Quinn had assigned Pearl and Fedderman to the case, and they’d slipped into their roles at Sammy’s. Now it looked as if they’d found the answer to the riddle of the roaming card numbers. It was in Linda’s apron pocket. Which Pearl thought was a shame, because she liked Linda, who was cute as puppies, naïve, and probably being used.
“Looks like Linda’s it,” Pearl said to Fedderman.
He showed no reaction but said, “I’m surprised. She seems like a good kid.”
“Maybe she is, but she’s going down for this one. Carries a mimic card swiper in her apron pocket.”
“I watched for those and missed it,” Fedderman said. “She must be smooth.”
“You can tell she’s done it before.”
“Let’s not spoil her evening,” Fedderman said, sipping some of his martini that he hadn’t poured into his water glass. “Let’s let her copy some more numbers, build up the evidence against her.”
“Watch her keep breaking the law?”
“Doesn’t that kind of make us accomplices?” Pearl asked. Since becoming an associate and not having the NYPD to cover legal expenses, she’d become cautious about exposing herself and the agency to potential litigation. Or maybe this was because she’d become fond of Linda and didn’t want to compound the mess the young woman was in.
“In a way,” Fedderman said, “but nobody’ll know but us. And you and me, Pearl, we’d never rat each other out.”
“I suspect you’re half right,” Pearl said.
She waited till an hour before closing time to call the NYPD, and Linda was apprehended with the card recorder in her apron pocket. It contained the names and credit card numbers of five diners who’d paid their checks with plastic that evening. Damning evidence.
As she was being led away, Linda was loudly and tearfully blaming everything on a guy named Bobby. Pearl believed her.
“Men!” Pearl said, with a disdain that dripped.
Fedderman didn’t comment, standing there thinking it was Linda who’d illegally recorded the card numbers.
A beaming and impressed Sammy told them his check to QAI would be in the mail, and Pearl and Fedderman left the restaurant about eleven o’clock to go to their respective apartments. They would write up their separate reports tomorrow and present them to Quinn, who would doubtless instruct Pearl to send a bill to Sammy even though it might cross with his check in the mail. Business was business.
Fedderman waited around outside the restaurant with Pearl while she tried to hail a cab. The temperature was still in the eighties, and the air was so sultry it felt as if rain might simply break out instead of fall.
It never took Pearl long to attract the eye of a cabbie, so they’d soon part and Fedderman would walk the opposite direction to his subway stop two blocks away.
Pearl extended one foot off the curb into the street and waved, kind of with her whole body.
Sure enough, a cab’s brake lights flared, and it made a U- turn, causing oncoming traffic to weave and honk, and drove half a block the wrong way in the curb lane to come to a halt near Pearl.
“It might have been Bobbie with an ‘I-E,’” Fedderman said, as she was climbing into the back of the cab. “A woman.”
Pearl glared at him. “Dream on.”
She slammed the cab’s door before he could reply.
Fedderman watched the cab make another U-turn to get straight with the traffic. He wondered if Pearl had always been the way she was, born with a burr up her ass. She was so damned smart, but always mouthing off and getting into trouble. What a waste. She’d never had a chance to make it any higher in the NYPD than he had. Fedderman was steady, a plodder, a solid detective, unskilled at departmental politics and wise enough to stay out of them. Staying out of things was another of Pearl’s problems. She couldn’t.
Another problem was that Pearl was a woman, and she had those looks. Her appearance drew unwanted attention, and she’d always been too hotheaded to handle it. She’d punched an NYPD captain once in a Midtown hotel after he’d touched her where he shouldn’t have. That alone would have been enough to sink most careers. It hadn’t quite sunk Pearl’s, but there was always a hole in her boat, and she’d had to bail constantly just to stay afloat. That was why she’d finally drifted out of the NYPD and into the bank guard job. She could be nice to people ten, twenty seconds at a stretch, so it had worked out okay for her. But she’d never been happy at Sixth National. She missed the challenge, the action, the satisfaction of bringing down the bad guys, even the danger.
The way Fedderman had missed that life while chasing after elusive golf balls down in Florida, or fishing in Gulf waters and pulling from the sea creatures he didn’t even recognize as fish.
Like Pearl, he’d been ripe for Quinn’s call.
Fedderman smiled in the direction Pearl had gone and then walked away, his right shirt cuff unbuttoned and flapping like a white surrender flag with every stride. If he knew about the cuff, he didn’t seem to mind.
He did kind of mind that there would be no more free drinks and appetizers at Sammy’s.
The next morning they were sitting in the arrangement of desks that made up Quinn and Associates’ office. Quinn was seated behind his desk, Pearl and Fedderman in chairs facing him. Low-angled sunlight invaded through the iron-grilled window and warmed the office. The Mr. Coffee over on the table in the corner was chuggling away, filling the air with the rich scent of fresh-brewed beans.
Fedderman had his suit coat off and was slouched sideways, taking notes. His right shirt cuff was already unbuttoned. That usually happened because of the way he cocked and dragged his wrist over paper as he wrote. A sunbeam alive with dust motes had found Pearl and made her more vividly beautiful than ever. Quinn wished, as he often did, that what they’d shared together hadn’t ended. He liked to think that maybe it hadn’t. He knew Pearl liked to think that it definitely had, for her, anyway. Could be she was right.
Quinn had made copies of the clippings Chrissie Keller had given him, and he explained the situation. Pearl and Fedderman listened carefully. This was the sort of investigation they all liked --- multiple murder rather than credit card pilfering. In the world of catching the bad guys and setting things as right as possible, solving this one could make a person feel useful. If only the case weren’t more than five years old. They all knew the odds of rekindling the past and nailing the Carver were long.
“I’ve read a lot about the mystical link between twins,” Pearl said, when Quinn was finished talking. “I’d like to say it’s bullshit, but I’m not so sure.”
“I don’t see how the mystery of twins is in any way relevant to this,” Fedderman said. “Other than motivating our client.”
“That’s enough relevance,” Quinn said, “considering we’re no longer paid by the city.” He looked at Pearl. “Or by a bank.”
They had all stuck their necks out to create this investigative agency, and they knew it.
Three people, working without a net. No one said anything for a while.
“That was a pregnant pause if ever I didn’t hear one,” Pearl finally said.
Fedderman, who’d been adding tooth marks to his dented yellow pencil, glanced over at her. “Does that mean we can expect another, smaller pause?”
“Point is,” Quinn said, “however a client’s motivated, if it’s legal and ethical, we’ll gladly accept payment.”
“One out of two would be okay,” Pearl said.
She was ignored.
“You mentioned our client had won some sorta jackpot,” Fedderman said to Quinn.
“Slot machine thing. She hit a kind of tri-state trifecta and got temporarily rich. This is how she feels compelled to spend her money.”
“That mysterious twins business,” Pearl said. She’d also been taking notes. She tapped her pencil’s eraser on a front tooth in tiny bounces. “I remember the Carver murders, how they confounded the hell out of everyone. You looked through this stuff already, Quinn. Do you think we’ve really got a chance of finding the killer?”
“A chance, sure.”
“It’d help if we could get the murder books outta the NYPD cold-case files,” Fedderman said.
“Right now,” Quinn said, “I don’t think the NYPD would be very cooperative. Understandably, they don’t want us stirring up something they failed to solve.”
“Maybe you could talk to Renz,” Pearl said.
Harley Renz was the city’s popular police commissioner, and a longtime acquaintance of them all. He was an unashamed, ambitious, and corrupt bureaucratic climber. “Renz would have the most to lose if we came along after five years and solved a serial killer case,” Quinn said. “In Harley’s eyes, that’d be making the NYPD look like dopes.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Fedderman said. “So what would he lose?”
“Political capital. To Renz, that’s like losing his own blood. In fact, it is his blood.” Quinn laced his fingers behind his neck and leaned back in his chair. Maybe too far back. Pearl was watching him, waiting to see if this time he’d topple backward. Maybe hoping. “We need to have something solid before we go to Renz,” Quinn said. “And some way for him to gain by us solving the case.”
“Meanwhile,” Pearl said, “we do our jobs, and never mind if our efforts are hopeless.”
“I’ll miss the free drinks and food at Sammy’s,” Fedderman said. “But to tell you the truth, I was getting tired of playing the alcoholic businessman. And Pearl was putting on weight.”
“I’ll come over there and put some weight on your god- damned head,” Pearl said.
Quinn thought about settling them down so they could all get to work familiarizing themselves with the five-year-old murder investigation; then he decided against it. He knew Pearl, and she wasn’t yet at the point where she would physically attack Fedderman. And experience had taught Fedderman how to tread around Pearl just out of range while sticking her with his barbs. So let them agitate each other, Quinn thought.
It was how they worked best.
Excerpted from MISTER X © Copyright 2011 by John Lutz. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.