Under the desert moon, there's no place to hide.
(read or print)
Ignoring the subtle vibrations under his pillow because he was just too damn comfortable. Warm and sated, inhaling the rich sensuality of musky sex. With force, Jensen opened a rebellious lid, his vision assaulted by the Strip's strobic neon. Outside the winds moaned, pushing everything in their paths. Grit crackled against the picture window as his eyes swept over the vista. A panoply of garish colors nonexistent in nature.
Looking away from the glass, back down at his covers. Beside him, Gretchen slept-- young and lithe-- beads of sweat lining the crack of her small, round ass. He wanted to take a bite out of it. His breathing became pronounced, audible.
Then his pager went off again.
Jensen swore to himself, then, with resignation, lifted his head from the pillow. He'd never realized how much a cranium could weigh. Digging his palms into the mattress, he hoisted his large frame forward until he was sitting. He tried to make out the number in the dark, but gave up and flicked on the light.
"Hmmm," she grunted. "Turn it off."
"In a minute."
"What time is it?"
Jensen's heart jumped as he read the number. Rom's mobile phone. How long had he been beeping in?
"What time-- "
"One-thirty," he snapped back.
"One-thirty?" She was whining now. "C'mon, baby. Bebe says we got the room until three. Turn off the light."
Jensen already had his pants on. "I've got to go."
"But it's so nasty outside."
"Nasty" was an understatement. The wind was howling dust and sand. Jensen slipped on his shirt and socks and tied his size eleven shoes. Brought up the hotel's outside line and punched in Rom's numbers. Static over the wires like lightning. Still he could make out a terse "Poe."
"Lemme go inside my car. If we get disconnected, call me back."
The line managed to keep as whooshing sounds, like tidal waves, came through the receiver. Jensen knotted his tie, then stroked Gretchen's ass. She purred, then rolled over and made a little snoring noise. Just as well. No sense starting what couldn't be finished. He heard the pop of the car door closing, the gusts die down. "What's up?"
"You turn your pager off, Stephen?"
"Why? How many times did you beep me?! "
"Half a dozen."
Jensen knew Poe was exaggerating. "Must have slept through it."
Not a total lie, but one Poe wasn't about to buy. "You know, I almost broke down and called your house."
Jensen's heart started hammering. For once, he paused before speaking. Rom had said "almost."
As if Alison didn't know. Yet she chose to play dumb. After fifteen years of marriage, he still hadn't figured her out. In the early years, she had kept him at arm's length. He had put it down to her youthful shyness... their difference in age. Later on, her mental state made her impenetrable, her mind blocked by a steel-trap door of undiagnosed illness.
Jensen was all professional now. "What's going down, Rom?"
"Single desert dump off West Charleston."
"In Red Rock?"
"Before." Poe gave directions. "And, in answer to your unasked question-- how someone came upon the body by happenstance at this time of night and in this weather-- no, it doesn't make any sense. The call came through a public phone outside Big Top." A beat. "Where are you, by the way?"
"Big Top." Pause. "Want me to go downstairs and check it out?"
"You have a print kit on you, Steve?"
"I meant to guard the phone." Jensen's voice rose a notch. "You got a problem with me tonight, Rom?"
I've got a problem with you every night, Stevie. Instead, Poe said, "I've already sent someone down to dust. But sure, go down and take a peek if you think it'll do some good." A hesitation. "I've got to get back, watch the corpse to make sure the sand doesn't totally bury it before the ME gets here."
"Stiff a male or female?"
"Female. One of her breasts was partially exposed. I can't tell if her entire body is nude, because the rest of her is coated with sand. I couldn't find a purse or any ID. Useless to search now. Tomorrow we'll go on a treasure hunt to look for things tossed and blown."
"You, me... probably Patricia." Poe swiped limp, dark hair from his black eyes, stared out the windshield of the Honda. Darker than syrup and about as thick. Even the moon was having trouble breaking through. "After you check out the phone booth, get down here. And bring some light. The grit is so thick I can barely make out my shadow."
Over the line, Jensen said, "Why don't you hammer down a stake and go home?" A pause. "Body'll keep till morning."
Poe could picture Steve's flip smile as he caressed the backside of his latest mistress. What was her name again? Greta? Something like that. "I'm hanging up."
And he did.
To prevent hair from blowing into his eyes, Poe had attempted a ponytail. But the lank tresses were too short and kept coming loose, tickling his eyes, making them red and irritated. He blinked repeatedly, wishing he had brought his protective goggles. His disposable face mask did little to cut the sting of the grit. He snapped his fingers through gloves, then caught himself and dropped his hands at his sides. A makeshift tent had been erected around the stiff, an attempt to give it and the pathologist some protection. Inside, flashlight beams shimmied in strobic fashion. Jensen was standing a few feet away, hands tucked into his pockets, coat collar turned up. Poe sensed the burn from the big man's suspicious eyes. Jensen was ten years older than he, a good six inches taller, outweighed him by fifty pounds of muscle. But circumstances had dictated that professionally the younger would rule the elder.
Poe shouted to him, "You can wait in the car."
"Yeah, go ahead. We'll take shifts."
"Thanks." Jensen lumbered over to his latest four-wheel-drive-- an Explorer. He slipped inside and shut the door.
Poe remained restless. He jogged over to the tent and stepped inside. The body had been photographed, its current position outlined by three-foot stakes. Although the desert floor held a top layer of loose sand, a foot or two below lay pure clay. He knelt beside the pathologist.
Calmly, she remarked, "You're blocking my light."
Rukmani's hot breath was laced with Indian spices-- not unlike his own. Their quiet dinner of baigan masaledar had been rudely interrupted by the page from the Bureau. Under a coat, she wore regulation scrubs. But her face was framed in a traditional Hindu veil-- this one was green silk to match her working clothes.
"Sorry." Poe stood up, then backed into the shadows. He stood outside the canvas and bounced on the balls of his feet. He shivered. Miserable and cold and exposed. Even after six months of somewhat steady dating, Rukmani was a hard woman to read. Attentive when they were together, yet she insisted that they take separate cars to the crime scene. Take separate cars almost everywhere, unless he made a point of picking her up. Poe supposed that was telling of something.
Rukmani called out, "You know, Rom-- "
"Can't hear you." Poe came back in, knelt in front of the blanketed body. "What?"
"I've done all I can out here. I took her temperature, but I doubt it's accurate, the liver being exposed to the wind. I dare not open her up further, pollute the body with more flotsam and jetsam. As it is, she's in bad shape. Did you get a good look at her?"
Pulling back the tarpaulin, she uncovered the dead face. Poe felt his stomach lurch. It took him a moment to find his voice. And when he did, it took the form of old malicious speech patterns. "Wha... what ha... happened to her face?"
Rukmani ignored his stutter. "You mean what happened to half of it. Could you push up my glasses? They're falling off my nose again."
Poe complied, feeling his gut jerked once again. How could that woman be so placid? Maybe it was seeing all those bodies float in the Ganges during her childhood. "Wha... what happened to her?"
"Offhand, it looks like someone gouged her." Rukmani's dark eyes peered at the visage. "Raked her clear down to the bone. He also scooped out the left eyeball-- "
The pathologist was taken aback. "What's wrong with you? You're acting like a rookie."
"She looks so... grotesque."
"That she does." She studied the mutilated face. "I fear someone was proving a point. Look at the perfect bilateral symmetry... right through the tip of the nose. Ruler-straight. Right side of the face is completely untouched, the left completely destroyed. Know what it reminds me of?"
"I don't want to hear this."
"Phantom of the Opera. Wonder if your killer is an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan." She threw the tarp back over the face. "I'll get my guys. Take her down to the morgue and finish her up indoors."
"Could you call Steve in?"
Rukmani snapped off her gloves. "Be glad to, Sergeant."
Technically it was detective sergeant. Poe smiled back without meaning it. As soon as she left, he pulled back the sheet, eyes immediately focusing on her face... on the lone eye. It had been blue. Now the pupil was fixed so that it appeared black. Using extreme imagination, he could picture her pretty once upon a time. A nice complexion, a high cheekbone, thick lips-- half of them. Gently, he pulled the blanket away from her body, then winced and backed up.
Her upper torso mimicked the face. One half was totally intact. Delicate bones. A large breast, no doubt with the help of implants. The side held smooth skin, a flat abdomen, a swoop of waist... shapely legs. The other side of the rib cage was shredded hamburger. Loose tendrils of muscle had remained attached to exposed bones, dancing with each blast of air.
At that moment, Jensen chose to make his entrance. Open-mouthed, he stared at the half-mangled corpse. Instinctively, he retreated, groped for one of the tent panels, and stuck his head outside. He felt his dinner bubbling up until it erupted with volcanic pressure. Hot molten lead in his mouth, spewing into the wind. Heaving until he was empty. When he was done, he ejected the last chunks from his mouth, then wiped his eyes and lips with a handkerchief. Shakily, he returned his focus to the body, then looked away.
"Sorry about that."
"Who was she, Steve?"
Jensen licked his sour lips. "What are you talking about?"
"You know her. Why else would a vet like you puke-- "
"Did you get a look at her face?"
"Yes. It's an abomination. Who was she?"
Trapped. Jensen rubbed his face. Better to head Rom off before he dug too deep.
Jensen coughed. "I think her name is... was... Brittany. Brittany Newel."
Jensen was quiet.
"Age?" Rom asked.
A big sigh. Jensen said, "Maybe twenty-two... twenty-three."
"Nice legs." Poe stood up, brushed his pants off. "Dancer?"
"Yeah, I think she danced."
"Show or lap?"
"Remember which hotel?"
"God, it was so long... maybe Havana."
"Is that where you met her?"
"Does it matter?"
"Now that she's dead it does."
Jensen's eyes narrowed. He straightened his spine and loomed over Poe. "Are you questioning me?"
Poe shrugged off the intimidating body posture. "About her, yes. Not about her murder."
The explanation did little to mollify Jensen's anger. "I picked her up in a bar, Poe. Around a year ago. A quickie thing. Nothing long-term."
"Long-term," Poe repeated. "Aren't you married?"
Jensen glared, then stormed out of the tent, bumping shoulders with Rukmani, spinning her sideways. He stopped instantly, turned around, came back inside. "God, I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"
Rukmani rubbed her sore shoulder. "What's your problem?"
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll live."
Poe bent down, covered the body. "Are your guys coming, Doc?"
"Yes, of course. Takes a moment to unload the gurney, Rom."
Jensen said, "What can you tell us about this, Doc? Other than the fact that the guy who did this must have lots of shit under his finger-nails."
"You think someone did this with his fingernails?" Poe asked.
Jensen said, "As opposed to... "
"A tool," Poe answered.
"Not a sharp tool," Rukmani said. "Too many jagged edges. Maybe a rake of some sort. Lots of parallel lines. You look at the tissue shreds under a microscope. If it was done with an implement, we'll find bits of metal or plastic... or bits of fingernail. Someone very strong, with sharp, strong nails. Ah... the gurney cometh." Rukmani smiled at Rom. "It's kind of crowded in here."
Poe cocked his head at Jensen. "Let's go."
Immediately, their faces were hit with gravel.
Poe shouted, "Talk in the car."
They broke for the Honda. Once inside, they took a few moments, wiped sand and dust from their faces and mouths. Poe said, "You shouldn't be on this case."
"Steve, you have a problem. You fucked her!"
Jensen winced, brushed blond hair from his face. "You take me off now, it makes me look bad. C'mon, Rom. Toss me a bone."
"Suppose I just get the basics. I'll go over to the apartment and talk to her roommate." A pause. "I really don't know anything about her. Things like who her friends were, who her enemies were. You know. Just... the basics."
Poe thought over the proposal. Pulling him off would point the finger. And then there was Alison.... "Call up Patricia. You two can go together-- "
"Oh, for Chrissakes, Rom-- "
"For your own welfare, Steve." To make sure you don't rifle through her personal effects and pull incriminating evidence. "She's your backup."
Jensen spoke through clenched teeth. "Nothing personal about Fat Patty. I love Fat Patty. But I don't need backup."
"I'll determine that," Poe said. "Call up Patricia or go home. The choice is yours."
Steve glared with irate eyes, trying to throw daggers into Poe's orbs. A midget with a motherfucking Napoleon complex. Unfortunately, Poe sat in the catbird seat.
A moment passed.
"Go pick up Patricia," Poe said. "Stop wasting time."
Angrily, Jensen bolted from the car, slammed the door. Poe watched as Jensen's Explorer skidded out from the sand, then tore down the road.
Minutes later, Rukmani knocked on the car window. She opened the door, slid inside the passenger seat. "He's acting awfully pissy."
"He knew her. The dead girl-- "
"He fucked her."
Rukmani was quiet. "So maybe he's acting guilty."
Poe started snapping his fingers. "Nah, he didn't do it."
"Well, I'm not positive of anything." Still snapping. "But it doesn't look like Steve's style. He likes his meat young and alive."
Rukmani took his hands, held them in her own. "You've got more tics than a clock. You really should be on Prozac."
Poe remained serious. "I should have pulled him off the case."
"Why didn't you?"
He shrugged. "Don't know."
"It wouldn't have anything to do with Alison, would it?"
He jerked his hands away, but hesitated before he spoke. "Maybe... probably."
Poe said, "I figure let him run loose for a day or two. He'll be watched. If he's guilty, it'll lead to something. If not, why screw him up prematurely? The man does have a wife and kids."
A wife and kids.
Rukmani straightened her jacket. "Well, I'm off to the morgue. How about you?"
"Guess I'll dig up a ghost named Brittany Newel." He scratched his aquiline nose. "She might have been a dancer for the floor show at Havana. Might as well start there."
Rukmani gave Poe's long, lean face a gentle pat. "Evil critters out there, Rom. Watch your back."
He nodded. Living in a city that never slept, her words were good advice.
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