4

 

The call had come in at oh-three-seventeen. A Code Two to a fleabag hotel on Hastings, for Constable Miller and Detective Cole. Except, Cole had dropped off the face of the planet. He wasn’t answering his cell phone, and he wasn’t at home either.

Jeanie had driven by his house on the way downtown. His car wasn’t in the driveway. That left three options: one, after their meeting he’d adjourned to another watering hole and now lay under a table, paralytic; two, he was still in Abbotsford; or three, he and the car had ended up in a ditch alongside Highway 1.

She didn’t like the probability on Option Three.  Then again, there was nothing to be done about it now.

Up ahead, blue, white, and red flashes reflected in puddles, on moisture-slick façades, and in the spray of water that hung in the night air. A moment later she could see three squad cars, blocking the street in front of a neglected brick building.

The area bordered on the oldest part of downtown Vancouver, and it had become a refuge for hookers and addicts and homeless people. Streets were lined with liquor stores, pawn shops, squalid supermarkets, seedy clubs, safe injection sites, and run-down hotels that offered cheap housing, doubled as brothels, and were widely considered to be the origin of the city’s bed bug epidemic. At regular intervals an individual or organization would make a stab at gentrifying a block or two, but any such attempt was met with vigorous resistance. If East Hastings disappeared, street people would have nowhere else to go.

The venue for this morning’s get-together was nearly a century old and narrow-shouldered. It sported six stories, a wealth of graffiti of varying artistic merit, and the skeletal remains of an awning over the front door. Above that, a lopsided neon sign read -OW--OW-  INN. Prophetic, if Jeanie knew her fleabags. All the first floor windows were boarded over, the planks decorated with samples of every flyer ever printed in the Metro Vancouver area. Rounding out the curb appeal were several dozen feet of police tape that cordoned off the area in front of the hotel entrance. Behind the tape clumped a handful of VPD officers, including a detective sergeant she recognized. Anna Bertosi was Homicide, and the coroner stood right next to her. Time to work on interdepartmental relations and find out what had occasioned the summons for Cole and Miller, Gang Crime.

She wedged her Prius into an alley next to a squad car and climbed out into the rain that fell steady and orange in the sodium light of a streetlamp. On the sidewalk outside the police tape the looky-loos had gathered. A panhandler whose exclusive turf was Gastown and its tourists, a couple of junkies coming down from a high, a group of glammed-up yuppies who’d wandered over from a nearby nightclub and now rubbed shoulders with three homeless men, teepeed under a fraying blanket and sharing a paper cup of coffee.

“Hey! Constable! About time! Didn’t they tell you sleep was overrated?” Bertosi waved at her, then stared the yuppies into clearing a path for Jeanie. They parted meekly and without a murmur. There was no polite way of saying it: Sergeant Anna Bertosi might have locks like a nude by Botticelli, but she was built like a TransLink bus, with a face to match. She put both to good use, generally instilling the fear of God in anyone who had the lousy sense to disagree with her. Now she lifted the tape and harrumphed. “All by your lonesome, Miller? Where’s that hotshot partner of yours?”

“No idea, ma’am. He’s not answering his phone.”

“Yeah, I noticed that, believe it or not. And don’t ma’am me. ‘Bertosi’ will do.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jeanie grimaced. “Sorry. May I ask why you called Gang Crime in on this?”

“You may, and since life’s too short to wait for Detective Cole, I’m even going to answer. Better yet, I’ll show you.” Bertosi turned around and headed through the hotel’s front door. “Come along.”

The foyer was marginally wider than a hallway, had nicotine yellow walls, and a threadbare carpet of indefinable pattern and color. A mirrored reception desk huddled in a corner, and behind it huddled a hotel employee who was being questioned by one of Bertosi’s constables. Going by the sapped look on the guy’s face, he was a hair away from whimpering, Lawyer!

On the reception desk sat an improbably state-of-the-art computer and, next to that, a small heap of latex gloves and booties. Bertosi jerked her chin at it. “Don’t forget to dress up.”

Jeanie obliged, eying the computer. “You’re bagging the electronic equipment?”

Glancing over her shoulder, Bertosi nodded. “For sure. You interested?”

“That thing looks way too snazzy for the place. Makes me wonder what they’re doing with it.”

“Nicely wondered, Constable. Up the stairs. The action’s on the fifth floor and the elevator has been declared out of bounds by CSI.”

A metal fire door led into a bland, windowless staircase. By the time they reached the fifth floor Jeanie was gasping and promised herself for the hundredth time to get back in shape. Outside room 507—the vinyl ‘7’ dangled at a rakish angle—two CSI officers in Tyvek coveralls were packing up containers and vials and paper bags with trace evidence.

Once of them glanced up as they approached, nodded at Bertosi. “Just finished in there, boss. I was about to give the coroner the go-ahead to remove the bodies. But if you want to take another look, that’s fine by me. You’re good to go in.”

Bodies. Plural.

Room 507 was small and basic and, under a strong layer of bleach, stank of death and last-breath bowel evacuations. It also was coated in finger print dust. No wardrobe, one chair, a wash basin with mirror in a corner. A twin bed with a fake mahogany headboard took up three quarters of the floor space. In the middle of it, spread-eagled on her back, lay a naked girl. Probably Asian, undoubtedly pubescent. The development of her body and the thriving acne on her face said she was in her mid-teens at most. Her makeup was loud, eyes accentuated with emerald shadow and thick black lines, the mouth painted a lurid red. Her fingernails were bitten down to the quick and varnished the same color as her mouth. A little girl trying to look seductive.

Jeanie’s stomach rolled, and she felt bile crawl up her throat. Fists balled, she shoved back the nausea. She was not going to lose it in front of Anna Bertosi, of all people. Sucking in a breath, she forced herself to study the body more closely. Some reddening of the neck and the telltale red dots freckling the conjunctivae and the delicate skin beneath the girl’s eyes. “Petechiae. She was strangled.”

It garnered a satisfied grunt from Bertosi. “Keep it up and I’ll shanghai you for Homicide, Miller.”

“I’ll remind you of that,” replied Jeanie with a quick glance at the detective. “But I’m still not sure what I’m doing here. Looks like a sexual homicide.”

“You’re forgetting someone.”

Of course!

Bodies. Plural.

She followed Bertosi’s gaze. The second body was an adult male, fully clothed. Still didn’t make it a joyride, but it beat a strangled baby hooker. Deceased was on the floor, slumped against the wall on the far side of the bed, which explained why she hadn’t seen him right away. This one was pretty straightforward as well. A guy’s head didn’t loll at this angle unless his neck had been broken. Soundless and tidy. No muss, no fuss. Ideal for hotels.

Jeanie filed the thought away for further use. Something else had caught her attention. She knew this guy. And now she understood why she was here. “That’s Frankie Roberts. Rap sheet’s a mile long, but mostly petty. Not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. He’s been doing odd jobs for the Minutemen for years. A little drug running, a little enforcing—gofer stuff. We were hoping to use him as confidential informant.”

Bertosi stared. “Who’s we?”

“Well, Gang Crime…”

Bertosi stared. Silently.

“Cole and… okay, I. I was thinking of it, alright? I did discuss it with Cole, though. Frankie’s been part of the Minutemen’s furniture for so long, they barely notice him anymore. Perfect for a CI. And it wouldn’t have been too hard to turn him.”

“No need to be defensive.” Bertosi quit staring. “I agree one hundred percent, Constable. Makes you wonder why nobody’s tapped the guy before.”

“Actually, there was someone who—“ Blushing, Jeanie bit it off.

Bertosi was staring again. “Yes?”

Damn your big mouth, Miller! “Carver. Can’t imagine why, given his connections, but Carver was trying to tap him. It’s in the files.”


5

 

They’d raised the top end of his bed, and so far he hadn’t been able to figure out why. Since they’d also put up screens there was nothing to see. No TV, no book, not even muzak. No clock either. All he could do was guess at the rate at which the day crawled past.

To make up for it, they’d gone wild and reckless over breakfast. The cop who was guarding him had unlocked the cuff on his left hand, so he could eat his Weetabix all by himself, like a good boy. Breakfast was followed by a nurse who’d made him use the bedpan—which he loathed almost as much as the Weetabix—and redeemed herself by putting him into a pair of hospital-issue pajama pants. That momentous event had taken place approximately three hours ago and nothing had happened since. Nate Carver was bored enough to scream.

Boredom wasn’t the issue. Not wanting to think was. If he couldn’t find anything to distract himself, he would start to think, and then he’d start to brood, and then he’d go fucking insane. On the other hand, from where he was lying, insanity sure looked to have its perks.

The reminder that there really was a world out here hurt worse than his body, which was saying something. A world that didn’t stink of stale sweat and cheap cigarettes, that didn’t sound like oaths and threats and clanging of metal, that came in colors other than gray and orange.

The thought of having to go back made him sick with dread. Which posed something of a problem, because go back he would, whether he liked it or not. Unless…

Gritting his teeth he shifted around a little—pain meds notwithstanding, any movement hurt like a son of a bitch—until he could see the chair next to his bed. The chair and the shoes.

There is no car key, idiot!

It had been a dream. Anesthetics could to weird things to a person’s cognitive function, everyone knew that. Good old Warren Cole, of all people, turning up by his bedside, offering him a means to run? Sure. The probability of a swarm of pigs swooping into the ICU and roosting on his bed was higher by an order of magnitude. If he believed that, he might as well believe that he’d walk out of here, get in the car, and use those two hundred bucks to take the surprising Dr. Kessler on a date.

Rowan. The name suited her. Same as the voice.

Nate closed his eyes to wish her back, never realizing that he was smiling. She’d surprised him, and these days he no longer surprised easily. But she’d gone and done something nobody had done in more than three years: she’d talked to him, as if she actually considered him human.

The rest of her had been almost as surprising. Like they said, good things came in small packages. She was delicate, a pixie—you half expected to see gossamer wings when she turned around. Sea green eyes, long-lidded and frank under an unruly cap of short, rose-gold hair, an interesting little crook to a nose dusted with freckles, a generous mouth, wider than fashionable, but perfect as far as Nate was concerned—soft and flexible and waiting to be kissed.

A quicksilver pool of heat unfurled in his belly as he tried to imagine how she might taste. Exotic, not quite earthly, and very, very—

“Did you do it?” Smoke with a core of ice.

It ripped right through that really, really pleasant daydream. Nate’s eyes popped open, and he blinked. Had he just conjured her up? Maybe. But she’d definitely appeared, standing by the side of his bed. Looking as though she hadn’t slept all night. She wasn’t wearing scrubs this morning. She was wearing jeans and a cashmere sweater the exact color of her eyes. And she avoided his gaze.

Nate felt sick. “What?”

“Did you do it?”

Ah. So much for his delusions of humanity. He should have known. He managed a weary smirk—if his face looked the way it felt, it was sure to produce a satisfactory convict effect. “Did I do what?”

She stared past him at some undefined spot behind the bed, as if her life depended on it, as if he could kill, or at the very least contaminate, her with a mere glance. “Did you rape and murder an underage girl? Did you conspire to commit crimes with members of the gang you were investigating? Did you try to pervert the course of justice?” Her voice was as flat as her eyes, as if all life had been bled from it.

“I see you took Dr. Douchebag’s advice. You did your research. Too little, too late, unfortunately. You already saved my undeserving ass. The taxpayers will be upset.”

A shiver ran through her, and her hands tightened into fists. “I asked you a question!”

“Three, actually. Three—“

“Don’t play games.” She was looking at him now, cold, blank, not giving anything away. “Please.”

Please. There was a request and a half. A day or two ago he would have told her what she expected to hear without batting an eyelid. Resigning himself to his own hopelessness had made things bearable somehow, so why upset the apple cart? But now all that lovely resignation was gone. He was almost at a point where he’d consider fighting. Oh hell, no! “Didn’t you know that none of us boys in maximum security is guilty?”

Goddammit, I asked you—“

The next round of their little game of truth tag came to an abrupt halt when the screen at the foot end of the bed was shoved aside. Enter his great aunt Violet’s idea of a matinee idol. Six foot even, side-parted wheaten curls trimmed to perfection, blue eyes, cleft chin, build by personal trainer, sublime air of arrogance. The apparition was sheathed in a sparkling white lab coat, which allowed Armani pants,  a Van Laack shirt and a silk tie to coyly peek out and awe the beholder.

Dr. Douchebag, Nate presumed.

And he sure as hell hadn’t expected to find the pixie here. Ignoring the patient completely—which was fine by Nate; where he came from, being ignored was the safest thing that could happen to you—he rounded on Nate’s visitor.

“Rowan? I must say I’m perplexed.” Oh yes, definitely Dr. Douchebag. Same tone, with a twist of viciousness lurking under the smug surface. “I was under the impression your shift in Emergency started at eight this morning. Also, I find your attire a little… shall we say, improper? Of course, impropriety from you shouldn’t really surprise me, especially after your behavior last evening. Would you care to explain yourself?”

Some history there, and not in a good way. The guy’s attitude was nauseating, and Rowan Kessler had done the impossible and gone another notch paler. “No. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t care to explain myself. Neither my schedule nor my wardrobe are any of your business.”

The viciousness under the surface came up for a gulp of air. “Watch your mouth, Rowan!”

“I asked to see Dr. Kessler,” Nate cut in, without any idea where he would go with this. “I wanted to thank her.” The pixie shot him a sidelong glance, somewhere between gratitude and bafflement. Congratulations, Carver! You’ve just been dubbed killer in shining armor.

Douchebag failed to be impressed. “I’m not talking to you, deviant!”

Deviant? Was this clown for real? For the first time in longer than he could remember, Nate actually wanted to laugh, but he figured that it would hurt more than the release was worth. It might be more fruitful to engage in a discussion of who was the deviant here, though Dr. Douchebag probably wouldn’t be open to objectively evaluating the evidence.

At least the interruption served to reset the guy. Bullies didn’t like witnesses, and the man was a bully if Nate had ever seen one. With a visible effort, the good doctor pulled himself together, resumed his god-in-a-white-coat persona.

He began to prod and poke the slab of meat that was the patient, unerringly finding the pressure points. He didn’t stop until Nate yelped. Scratch the bully. Douchebag was a genuine sadist.

A small, satisfied sneer on his face, he straightened up. “Given the circumstances, his condition is good,” he announced to no one in particular. “Certainly safe to be transported. But I want an MRI done on him.”

“An MRI?” The pixie sounded astonished.

“There’s been sufficient blunt trauma to the chest to warrant it. Much as I loathe wasting time and money on the likes of him, I don’t want to see him back here tomorrow or the day after because he’s developed a tamponade. MRI has been found to be quite effective in diagnosing the early stages. More so than X-ray or ECG.” Dr. Douchebag graced her with a condescending huff. “You ought to keep up with your reading, Rowan. Now, since you’re here, make yourself useful. Get him unhooked and put those shoes on him. I want him down in Radiology right away. With a little bit of luck we can send him back where he belongs by lunchtime.” He turned around. “Officer! In here, please!”

The cop on duty walked in, dragging CO II Pettifer, rumpled and non-regulation, along in his wake. Douche launched into an explanation, but Nate wasn’t listening.

Put those shoes on him.

The car key. If there was a car key. In a few seconds it would no longer matter whether Warren had been here or not, whether he’d left the key or not. One way or the other, Nate was screwed. If there was no key, nothing would change. If there was, it would be found. There would be questions he’d refuse to answer, and as soon as he was well enough, he’d end up in solitary, all privileges suspended.

Nothing would change, either way. So why was he holding his breath?

Rowan Kessler looked indecisive, as though she were contemplating to tell Dr. Douchebag exactly where to shove his orders. The decision, when it came, came with a little sigh, a little shrug—a gesture that said she’d given in to the guy a hundred times before, simply because it was less painful than rebellion. Nate sympathized. Then she stepped to the chair, picked up the sneakers. And froze.

He wanted to close his eyes and drift away, find a place inside his mind that had sandy beaches and hammocks and drinks with stupid umbrellas in them, and just hide out there for the duration. As it turned out, he couldn’t stop staring at the shoes.

The pixie turned a little, her body screening the sneakers from view of the three men behind her, then her hand slipped into the left shoe. When she pulled it out, she was holding a car key.

The world tilted and slipped out of reach. Irony was dancing a nasty little victory jig. Nate shut his eyes, but that didn’t shut out the image. Not until he felt hands by his face, removing the oxygen cannula; hands on his chest, removing the ECG contacts; hands touching his hand, removing the BP cuff. Gently. He hadn’t been touched with any kind of gentleness in years.

His fingers closed around hers of their own accord, and he held on carefully, gingerly, so as not to crush that fragile thing she was giving him. A quick, slight squeeze of acknowledgement, then she let go.

“Officer?”

If someone had thrown ice water on him, the shock couldn’t have been worse. What did you expect, idiot?

“Ma’am?”

“If Mr. Carver is to get out of bed, he’ll have to be uncuffed.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

When the cop unlocked the first cuff, Nate finally allowed himself to open his eyes. The part of him that was convinced he’d gone down the rabbit hole reacted a little disappointed not to find the Cheshire Cat hovering beneath the ceiling. Instead, it was the pixie’s face hovering above him, pale and serious and unreadable.

“Don’t try to sit up on your own.” She threaded one arm around his shoulders.

“I’m not an invalid,” he grumbled, vaguely embarrassed at the idea of making a spectacle of himself in front of a cop, a corrections officer, and Douchebag. “I can do this!” On a hiss, he pushed himself up, found that his pride was considerably more costly than he’d figured.

The ghost of a smile tugged at the pixie’s gorgeous mouth, and one rose-gold eyebrow shot up. “Told you, Mr. Carver. You’ve got some deep tissue bruising, not to mention the stab wound. I promise, even walking to the bathroom will be a challenge. Now will you let me help?”

He nodded, let her lift his legs, swing them over, until he could sit at the edge of the bed. Nate’s bare feet and ankles poked from flimsy, too-short pajama pants, and beneath them, on the floor where she must have put them, sat his sneakers. The keys were nowhere in evidence.

The surprising Rowan Kessler crouched, picked up the right shoe, and slipped it on Nate’s foot. The first thought that shot through his mind was that walking normally with a key in his shoe would be tricky. The second thought was What the fuck? But he couldn’t very well ask her.