Captain Dan Trani walked over to the yellow Crime Scene tape and held it up for Tim Wilson to duck under.
“Same story, Tim. The bastard is speeding up. Preliminary look says this one is identical to the others. Woman might be a bit older, but same pattern on the chest, same clothing. This fuck is starting to piss me off.”
Wilson nodded and moved over to the body. One of the Forensics people was just finishing up, and he held the body bag open so that Wilson could look it over.
“Captain, I have a lead I haven’t pursued yet. I think I’d better tell you about it before I go off on a wild goose chase.”
Trani was mildly irritated. “At this point, even a wild goose chase would be better than what we’ve got. So tell me.”
Wilson gave him the background in short, clipped sentences.
“So this woman saw this victim in her mirror? Saw a cloaked figure stab her to death in her hall mirror?”
Wilson held up his hands in self defense. “I know, I know. But I can’t ignore the coincidences here. First, she described this victim very accurately. Second, she knew about the pattern of eight wounds. And third, she knew that the wounds were inflicted so that the victim didn’t die until the last plunge of the knife. I hate coincidences, Captain. Either this girl was at the murder scene, or she did it herself, or she’s having damned accurate visions. No matter which of these possibilities is correct, we can’t ignore her.”
Trani shook his head. “So don’t ignore her. Coincidences like this don’t happen. Go find out. In the meantime, keep this to yourself. The press has already got us hung out to dry.”
“Right. Speaking of the press, I see Ranney is here. If that prick gets hold of something like this….”
“So don’t tell him. You hate the bastard anyway. Just ignore him. Go.”
Wilson ducked under the yellow tape again and headed back toward his car. He knew instantly that the hand on his shoulder belonged to Boyd Ranney.
“So, Detective, you guys any closer to solving this, or are you waiting until he murders the mayor’s daughter?”
Wilson turned to face him. “Take your hand off me, Ranney.” When the hand lingered longer than Wilson thought it should, he reached up and yanked it off his shoulder.
Ranney seemed to take delight in skirting the edge of danger with cops. “Touchy, huh? What’s the matter, Detective? Can’t stand the spotlight? I hear you’re Trani’s designated sacrificial lamb on this one. If the department can’t solve it in a reasonable time, you get the honor of falling on your sword. Ain’t life grand? Your first big break, and they give you the crime of the decade. You’re toast, Detective. But I suppose you already figured that out. Even a dumb cop can see when he’s being led to the slaughter.”
Wilson, who had turned away after removing Ranney’s hand from his shoulder, spun back to face him. His face flushed a hot red, and he moved in toward the larger Ranney’s body.
“Leave it alone, Detective! You have work to do. Go do it.” The voice was Trani’s, who had observed the baiting and quickly come up behind Ranney.
The inner conflict played out on Wilson’s expressive face. Reason and discipline finally won out, but it appeared to be a close contest. He took a step back, nodded to his Captain, and then walked away.
“Sensitive, huh Captain? Got a temper, too. Too bad he can’t use all that energy to solve these murders.”
Trani stepped back from the reporter. “You should leave it alone also, Mr. Ranney. What you’re doing won’t help solve this case. Just leave the personal stuff out of it, huh?”
Trani walked back to the crime scene then. Boyd Ranney spun on his heel and followed the rapidly disappearing Wilson.
When Wilson got into his car and drove away Ranney immediately hailed a passing cab. The cab sped after the plain brown Chevrolet sedan, keeping it in sight as it headed off toward the Village.
It was mid-afternoon when Ceil returned to her niece’s apartment. She found Bob Logan pacing the floor, restless and obviously agitated. Her niece was nowhere in sight.
“You didn’t let her go out, did you?”
Logan stopped his pacing and went directly to Ceil. “Of course not. She’s lying down in the bedroom. It’s been quiet here. We moved the mirror to the basement, and then Jennifer started making phone calls. Business calls. I stayed out of her way. Used the time to test this place for defense. It looks solid as hell, Ceil, but it’s vulnerable to anybody coming in over the roof. Those windows wouldn’t stop anybody, and the roof itself is accessible to anyone with an interest in going up there.”
“So why is Jenn in bed? This girl is a workaholic. She never takes a break.”
Logan nodded. “I know. It was one of the phone calls. An incoming call. You told me not to screen them, so I was on the roof when it came in. I got back in here just as she was finishing up. She was in tears.”
Ceil’s eyes narrowed and hardened. “Steven?”
Again Logan nodded. “Yeah, but she wouldn’t tell me what he’d said. I gather it was pretty threatening.”
Ceil’s whole face was changed now. Her jaw was set in a hard line, her lips were pursed tightly, and her brow was deeply furrowed. “Some people don’t learn. My little lesson didn’t take. Should have made it more memorable, I suppose. Won’t make that mistake again.”
Logan put his hand on her shoulder. “You look like your old self, Ceil. Younger, and I see that relentless look back on your face. Just remember, we don’t have a clean-up team on call to handle our messes anymore.”
Ceil gently brushed his hand off her shoulder. “Don’t need it. Didn’t need it then either. I clean up my own dirty work. What do we do about the windows?”
Logan shook his head. “Nothing to do. Any moderately capable intruder could be in here in seconds, once he got to the roof. Short of boarding up the windows, we could only react. If you’re concerned, we’ll have to move her, and she won’t go without a struggle. She’s trying to maintain a normal life here, if she can.”
Ceil thought about that. “The nutcase who’s killing all the women isn’t ready to move on her yet. But Steven is a different story. He’s not trained for it, but he’s fit, and he’s pissed off enough to risk everything, including breaking through a window while swinging from a tethered line. Can you set up a protected hide that gives you a clear line of fire to all the windows?”
“No problem. I figured you’d opt for that. I can use the solid core doors from the bedroom closets. That gives me enough stopping power, if I put them together back to back. I doubt if Steven is trained to shoot on the fly, so all I need is a hide that gives me body protection while I take him down.”
Ceil nodded. “Do it. I’ll go talk to my niece now. It’s time I start prepping her to move to a safer location if things start heating up. Did you get a chance to tell her about my former life?”
“She’s had the full tour. At this point, she thinks you walk on water, which wasn’t so far from the truth, twenty years ago. She’ll do what you tell her.”
Ceil found her niece lying full length on the bed, with a cold compress covering her eyes.
“Hey babe, you asleep?”
“Nope. I’ve been listening to you and Mr. Logan. I heard most of it, even though you were speaking softly.” Jennifer pulled off the damp cloth and sat up, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. “Oh my God! I think I wouldn’t recognize you if I saw you on the street!”
Ceil smiled. “Desperate measures. Sort of feels good to go natural again. Now what about Steven? Did he get tough with you on the phone?”
Tears flowed immediately. “How could I live with someone for all those months and not really know him? He’s not who I thought he was at all. They’ve threatened to fire him at his job. More than threatened, I guess. It’s not final yet, but he’s definitely being targeted. He blames me for that.”
Ceil sat beside her niece on the edge of the bed. “He would. He’s pretty weak, Jenn. His life is coming apart now, and he’s looking to blame everybody but himself. Best if you don’t talk to him anymore.”
Jennifer dried her tears. “I won’t, if I can help it. But most of what he said was about you. I’ve never heard him talk like that before. He just rages when he mentions your name. He’s going to kill you. He’s going to cripple you for life. You blindsided him last night, but that won’t happen again. He has a gun, Ceil. I don’t know where he got it, but he has a gun, and he’s crazed enough right now to use it, if he sees you.”
Ceil’s face had remained set in hard lines. “Steven is an annoyance, babe. He’s an amateur who got his ego bruised by someone he thought was insignificant. He might do something stupid but he’s no match for a pro, regardless of his size or physical conditioning. We just have to be careful that he doesn’t get lucky. Put him out of your mind, OK?”
“Easier said than done. To me he seems like a real threat, but I saw you disable him like he was a child last night, so I believe you.”
“Good. Our real problem is this guy in the hood. Silvia thinks he’s targeted you, and he’s playing with us while he frightens you into being careless. But we won’t let you get careless, so don’t worry about him. As long as we stay a step ahead of him, he can’t get to you.”
“If you say so. Do you really have a secret room in your apartment?”
Ceil knew then the immediate crisis with her niece was over. “I really do. I’ll show you the next time you’re over. In the meantime, you should go back to work. I have a couple of errands to run, so Bob will stay with you until I come back. Oh, he’s taking the doors off your closets, to set up a little barrier for the two of you in case somebody comes flying through the window.”
“I heard the two of you say that. I’ll help him set it up. Then I’ll get back to my projects. Be careful, Ceil. Steven may be an amateur to you, but he’s strong and he’s incredibly quick. With this rage he’s in, he might do something very stupid. If he gets hold of you, he could kill you with his bare hands.”
Ceil patted her niece on the shoulder. “Not really, babe. But I’ll be careful.”
On her way out of Jennifer’s apartment, Ceil spoke in a whisper to Bob Logan. “I’m taking the battle directly to Steven. He’s got me more angry than I’ve been in years. Hold down the fort. If Steven shows up here, don’t take any chances. I mean it, Bob. He’s an amateur, but that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous. He’s wounded, so treat him that way. Are we clear?”
Logan, who had never fired his weapon in thirty years on the job, tried to bring Ceil down a little. “I’ll be careful. He won’t try to come over the roof in broad daylight, and the door will be barricaded. Don’t let him push your buttons, Ceil. Treat him like any other threat, in spite of the fact that Jenn is your niece. Keep your professionalism, OK?”
Ceil flared. “He harms one hair on her head and I’ll cut his balls off and make him eat them! This is personal. He’s made it personal. He will not hurt my niece!”
The puzzled look in Logan’s eyes made her pause and reevaluate. It only took a couple of seconds, but the effect was dramatic. She relaxed slightly, and the hard look in her eyes softened.
“You’re right. Sorry. I’ve been out of this business for a while. Never had a member of my family at risk before. Made me a little crazy. Look, Jenn will help you build the hide. Just keep her safe, huh? I haven’t gotten that grumpy for a very long time.”
As she closed the door behind her, she heard the floor brace being installed, and she immediately put Logan and her niece out of her mind. She’d done all she could here, and Logan would handle it, or he wouldn’t. She felt her control returning, felt the hot flush of anger fading. She deliberately bypassed the elevator and took the stairs.
By the time she hailed a cab on the street below, she was breathing normally, and her pulse was a perfect sixty beats per minute. She was a little out of practice at adversary management, but it would come back to her. This Steven business was good practice for dealing the real threat, a sociopathic killer who had somehow fixated on Jennifer. She could save her anger for the confrontation with that monster. It would happen, that confrontation. Sooner rather than later, the man in the hood would make his run on Jennifer, and to get to her, he would have to go through Ceil Larkin.
She occupied the ride to 26 Broadway with thoughts of how she would disarm and disable the hooded killer. Her training in hand to hand combat had been the very best, a mixture of martial arts and dirty tricks that had made her into an awesome fighter. It had been twenty years since her last life and death struggle. She was no longer young, and not even remotely as fit as she’d been then. But it would come back to her when she needed it. Like riding a bicycle, or making love. You never really forgot things like that. She’d been a terror back then, focused and willing to use any weapon to accomplish her assignments. This situation was becoming as important to her as her clandestine tasks had been back then. Steven was just a warm-up for the main event. She could deal with him dispassionately now, having thought it through. No need to go off half-cocked and angry. Logan was right. Time to be a professional again.
Twenty-six Broadway was one of those almost invisible professional buildings in lower Manhattan. There was nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other similarly invisible buildings that house small law firms, accountants, brokerage firms and investment bankers. The rents are reasonable (for Manhattan), the spaces are clean, and it’s an easy walk from the subway station.
Ceil took a few seconds to locate Hydrick and Benson on the building’s directory, then marched resolutely to the elevator bank.
The eleventh floor housed a firm of CPAs and Hydrick & Benson, Investment Bankers. As with many bucket shops, the reception area had been designed to impress. It looked somber and old-money, and the receptionist, a shapely young blonde in an expensive suit and artfully applied makeup, also looked expensive.
And disinterested, after she noticed Ceil’s jeans and squall jacket. But she made an effort.
“May I help you, madam? You’re here to see your accountant, right?”
“I’m here to see Steven Holt. I don’t have an appointment, but I’m sure he’ll want to see me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Mr. Holt is taking a sick day today. I hope you didn’t make a special trip just to see him.”
“No, no, I was downtown anyway. I should have called. He warned me about that, but I was careless. Is he at home, do you know? I’ll call him tonight to see how he’s feeling.”
The receptionist referred to her notepad. “I don’t think so. He called in with this telephone number this morning, in case one of his clients needed to speak with him. I don’t think that’s his home number.”
“Can I see? I know his home number. I’m his cousin, just in the City for today. From Pennsylvania. Oh, that’s not his home number. I hope he’s not in a hospital or something.”
The receptionist became conspiratorial now. “It’s not a hospital. I think he’s playing hooky today. Probably enjoying this Indian summer weather. These guys work long hours when they’re doing a deal, so when things are slack, they tend to work flex hours.”
Ceil put on her most beguiling face. “Is he in big trouble with his firm? He told me over the weekend he’s having some difficulties with some of his deals. He works so hard, but sometimes things just go wrong.”
The blonde glanced around to be sure she wouldn’t be overheard. “I hope he’s not, but there’s talk. You know how office gossip is. I heard he’s struggling with several deals that are at risk of losing their IPO approval from the SEC. He has some really tough ones, I know that. Plus he does the office football team. He’s a really nice guy, but he has a bad situation at home, too. Things don’t seem to be going his way right at this moment, but I know him pretty well. He’ll land on his feet, I’m sure.”
Ceil backed away. She had memorized the telephone number from her brief glance at the receptionist’s pad. “You’re right. He always does, doesn’t he? Thank you for your help, then.”
The blonde picked up her pen. “Can I tell him you were here?”
Ceil had reached the elevator bank. “Please do. Ceil Larkin. But I’m sure I’ll reach him before you do. Thanks again.”
She used the elevator ride to dial a number, and when the operator answered, she said, “Larkin, Accounting Supervisor. A and N for 592-1128, please.”
There was a short pause, then a computer generated voice said “Linda Mullins, 108 Bergen Street, Brooklyn.”
Logan was pleasantly surprised by the girl’s strength. He had already formed an opinion of her, based on her fear of her ex-boyfriend and her general wispiness. Artsy, not physical, scatterbrained. So he was not counting on her to be of much help in removing the heavy doors and constructing the temporary hide.
Once she had gathered herself together, after Ceil’s talk with her, she became a focused dynamo. She brought out a complete, organized toolbox and set about removing the screws from the hinges with a power screwdriver.
He had decided the best way to move the doors from the closets to the living room was to slide them on one of the scatter rugs. Jennifer picked up her end of the first door with an easy lifting motion and waited for him to do the same.
Then she produced steel mending plates from her toolbox and proceeded to join the two doors together. She quickly moved one of her temporarily unused drafting tables as a support, using another steel brace to attach the double thickness doors to the heavy table base.
“There. Not very pretty, but big enough for us to get behind if we have to, Mr. Logan. Is this what you had in mind?”
“Better than I’d planned, Jennifer. Sorry to mess up your workspace like this, but I think we’re better off being prepared than being caught by surprise.”
Jennifer smiled. “I agree. You must think I’m a complete idiot, to live with a guy who’s now threatening my aunt’s life. I was never very good at judging men, Mr. Logan. It just never occurred to me that he would be like this. He was a jerk sometimes, but who would think he’d get a gun and all? I know Ceil is trained in hand-to-hand and all that, but she’s underestimating Steven. She can’t possibly match him in strength if he attacks her. The other night she surprised him, but this time he’ll be ready. I’m much more worried about her than about myself.”
Logan gave the doors a rough shaking and found them strong and stable. He then put one hand on the top of the combined doors and, as nimbly as a teenager, vaulted over the doors and into a crouch behind them. To his surprise, he saw Jennifer’s long legs take a single stride and, without effort, vault the doors and land on all fours beside him.
“It’ll do. If it comes to using this thing, do just what you did. You hear glass breaking, don’t even think about it. Just get yourself behind the doors as quickly as possible, just like you did now.”
Jennifer began to put her tools away, and Logan tidied up the mess they’d made.
“You might be right, Jennifer. Ceil was extremely able in hand-to-hand twenty years ago. But part of her advantage was that nobody expected her to be a challenge. She always had the element of surprise. That doesn’t exist with Steven now. He’s seen her act, and he won’t get suckered again. But Ceil’s training went heavy on using her opponent’s strength against them. She can’t out arm-wrestle him, but she can trick him in ways he couldn’t imagine.”
Jennifer had returned her tools to their tidy, organized places. She leaned easily against the doors.
“He a professional athlete. He’s quicker than you might think, and he’s incredibly strong. If he gets a grip on her, he’ll break bones before he lets go. She has to have lost a step or two over the years. I just wish she wasn’t so eager to go one on one with him.”
Logan nodded. “It’s a funny thing, how we age and slow down. Ceil is sort of hoping she gets a chance to show that age and inactivity haven’t taken away her skills. I know just how she feels. I still think of myself pretty much as I was when I was thirty-five. The effects of getting older are insidious. They occur so slowly that we don’t see how they’re stealing our strengths. We know our endurance is damaged, but we tend to think our strengths are still the same. We just get tired quicker. Of course, our strengths are not the same. Our reflexes are slower, our vision is poorer, our hearing has deteriorated, our muscle mass has been reduced, regardless of how much we’ve trained to keep it intact. Our hearts are as big as they ever were. But the reality is, it’s all downhill after thirty-five.”
“And the overconfidence she’s showing?”
“It’s gotten muddied up in her mind. She would die protecting you. Her maternal instincts have kicked in. You’re as close to a daughter as she has, and when you are threatened, she becomes as protective as a lioness with cubs.”
Jennifer walked over to one of the sofas and dropped into it. “Oh shit. I knew that’s what was happening. Now I’ve put her in danger. She has to get between me and whatever’s threatening me. I never wanted this, Mr. Logan. I never wanted her to be anything but my eccentric aunt who loves me.”
The buzzer from the lobby sounded then, startling them both.
Jennifer walked to the intercom, with Logan right behind her.
“Who is it?”
“Detective Tim Wilson, NYPD. Is this Jennifer Hughes?”
“I’d like to come up and talk to you, Ms. Hughes. About your interview at the station this morning.”
She buzzed the door open for him, and went to open the apartment door. Logan beat her to it.
“Please go back into the apartment, Jennifer. I’ll check him out. If he’s who he says he is, I’ll bring him in.”
Jennifer frowned briefly, and then did as she was told. When Logan saw the cop through the door’s peephole, he recognized immediately that he was who he said he was, and opened the door.
After Wilson held his badge up so he could examine it, Logan led him into the big room.
Wilson was evidently surprised at the size and colorful layout of the space. His eyes took it all in a matter of seconds, coming to rest finally on the doors they had just finished assembling.
“Building a fort? It doesn’t seem to match the rest of the décor.”
Jennifer stepped forward from the drafting table where she’d been waiting. “Good of you to visit, Detective. I didn’t think anybody took me seriously this morning.”
Wilson finally took note of the tall, stunning girl in the room. “Oh! They told me you were not our ordinary kind of informer, but they didn’t do you justice. I’m Detective Wilson, Ma’am.”
Logan moved off to one side of the room, where he could watch without being obvious.
“Jennifer Hughes. I suppose it isn’t every day you get someone claiming they’re seeing murders in their mirror. Sounds pretty silly, even to me. But as I said this morning, when I see these things, they seem real enough. Would you like coffee or tea, Mr. Wilson?”
“No, I’m fine. I wonder if you’d mind telling me your experience with your mirror again. Sometimes the sergeants get the facts a little confused in their report. In a case like this, where the report involves the supernatural, or the use of psychic powers, they can be careless in the retelling of the story. Are you a physic, Ms. Hughes?”
Jennifer laughed, nervously. “God, no! I’m a commercial artist who just happens to be seeing things I don’t want to see. This is a first for me. I’m getting a crash course in psychic phenomenon, but I’m about as non-psychic as you can get.”
“Nothing like this ever happen to you before?”
Jennifer shook her head. “Nothing even close. Until I brought that mirror home, my life was blissfully simple. Well, except for Steven, of course. My ex-roommate. He’s become something of an annoyance since I asked him to move out. But that has nothing to do with the visions in the mirror.”
“If you could start at the beginning, I’d like to hear the whole story.”
It took fifteen minutes to retell it all, including descriptions of Ceil, Silvia and Carl. When she was finished, Wilson grilled her for another fifteen minutes on the details of the ritual murders themselves. He seemed fixated on the stabbing pattern, and on the descriptions of the two victims.
“And you never got a look at the murderer himself? Just his robe?”
“And his hands. Nothing else.”
Wilson turned to Logan now. “Are you one of the friends who’s helping Ms. Hughes get through this?”
Logan came forward. “Not exactly. My name is Logan. I’m here at Ceil Larkin’s request.”
“Are you licensed to carry that weapon I see bulging under your left arm?”
“I am.” Logan pulled out his wallet and showed his NYC Carry Permit, which Wilson examined closely.”
“And is this fort your idea?”
“It is. A temporary hide, in the event the windows are breached. Not very pretty, but those doors would stop a .45 slug if they had to.”
“And who would be firing a .45 at Jennifer? This killer uses a knife.”
“Just a precaution, Detective. Hopefully nobody is going to fire anything at anybody.”
Wilson frowned. It was obvious he was not being told everything. “The ex-boyfriend?”
“Just a precaution, as I said.”
Wilson seemed to realize that the armed security man was not going to give him any more information. “Are you a former cop, Mr. Logan?”
“I was with an agency of the Federal Government. I retired some years ago.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence, as Wilson searched for ways to gather more information. Finally he gave it up.
“Can I see the mirror now, Ms. Hughes? I think that’s all the questions I have right now.”
Jennifer, who had observed the clash of wills between the attractive young cop and the evasive old agent, was instantly apologetic. “I’m afraid we just packed it away in the basement. It was becoming upsetting to me, so we thought it better to get it out of the apartment.”
“Can we go down and unpack it? I’m sorry to trouble you, but you’re part of an ongoing murder investigation now, and there are enough coincidences in your description of the murder scenes and the actual victims that I have to pursue this.”
Logan said “I can’t let her go alone, and I can’t go with you and leave her alone here. If one of us goes to the basement, we all go.”
Wilson stood up from the drafting stool he’d been sitting on. “Then let’s go now. All of us. I have to admit this mirror intrigues me. Maybe you’ll get another vision while we’re down there.”
Logan shook his head. “She won’t, because she won’t be looking at it. Strict orders from her aunt, Ceil Larkin.”