Copyright 2016 By Copper Smith All Rights Reserved
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Nice life you’ve made for yourself, Cassandra. Beautiful girl from a family that raised you well. You came from money, from educated people who taught you better. And this is what happens? Shaking your ass for a crowd of horny drunks at Bootsie’s?
But that’s just your way, isn’t it? You do what you want. Always too wrapped up in your own needs to notice the hearts you break along the way. But that independent streak is going to cost you. Sooner than you think.
You’re a smart girl, but there’s a lot they didn’t teach you in that upper crust prep school you went to. But don’t worry. I’ll teach you.
I’ll teach you what happens when you break the wrong heart, Cassandra. I’ll teach you why it’s not a good idea to brush aside somebody who cares, somebody who’ll give everything for you. Kiss the world goodnight, sweetheart. Tonight your time is up.
Legato needed a job. That was his excuse for loitering outside Bootsie’s strip club at one-thirty in the morning.
But first he needed a cigarette. So before stepping inside, he lit up and watched the circus of East Lake street unfold. Range Rovers bounced through red lights. Underfed hookers flagged down cars that belonged in safer neighborhoods. Winos howled wounded serenades to nobody. And it all made Legato’s life seem a little less shitty.
Nothing left to do but gulp down his pride and step into Bootsie’s.
Inside, the place throbbed like a migraine. But the threat was empty. No knife fights in progress, no menacing glares greeting him. Mostly men in tattered suits happy to gawk at bodies besides their wives.’
Legato moved to the bar, took a seat and watched everything. The drowsy dancer on the main-stage, the frat boys wrestling on the floor. Nobody dangerous, just plenty of loud, drunken stupidity.
He was scanning the place, detecting, forgetting for a second how hard he’d fallen: Detective days long gone. No more badge, no more job. And now this shit. Applying for a bouncer gig in a strip club.
The bartender – bald brother, too cool for the room – bopped up to him. “What we drinking tonight, doctor?”
“I’m good. Not here for a drink.”
The bartender’s face warmed into an illicit grin. He leaned forward, a secret eating at him. “Oh, we here to talk business?” He jerked his head toward a dancer.
“Diamond’s on the menu tonight if you like brown sugar. If you dig redheads, you just missed Kitty, but if you need the digits, we can talk. She’s got a mouth like a motor, baby, hand on the heart. And since you a first time customer –“
Legato cut off the barkeep’s sales patter. “Not here for that either. I’m looking for a Cicely. She told me to come in right before closing.”
The bartender nodded to a door down the hallway. “Knock twice to let her know everything’s cool. She gets a little antsy past midnight. You here for the bouncer gig?”
The bartender reached out, gave Legato’s fist a bump. “A word to the wise, my man…” He leaned forward, voice hushed. “If you got anything in your past, keep it on the low. She’ll ask, but with the right sweet talk, you don’t have to answer.”
Legato smirked. “What makes you think I have something in my past?”
The barkeep shrugged. “Some cats just have that look. Like somebody who just walked in from a street fight.”
Stealing a glance in the mirror across the bar, Legato straightened his collar. “I suppose I should stop into the can, wipe that street fight look off.” With a fist bump, he stepped away. “Name’s Legato, and you?”
“They call me Big Trick. Good luck to you, doctor.”
After a quick stop in the men’s room, Legato found the office, knocked twice and heard an uneasy chirp. “Yes?”
“I’m here for the interview?”
“Come on in,” she said, voice relaxed now.
The detective in Legato had Cicely pegged seconds after strolling inside. She was the girl every guy sat next to in high school but never noticed. A sweetheart, eager to please. Always does her homework and yours too if you ask nicely. Yearbook committee, school dance planner, honor roll. But you forgot her name days after graduation.
He took a seat, gave her timid hand a shake. “Jake Legato, nice to meet you”
“I’m Cicely Russo, the manager here,” she answered, eyes aimed at the desk. She forced a grin and asked, “So, what do you think of Bootsie’s so far?”
“I could handle working here, if that’s what you mean. Don’t know much about it.”
“Not much to know, I suppose. It’s a… strip club,” she said, kind of embarrassed by it all. “I got in touch because Andy told me you needed a job.”
“Yeah, tells me he’s had enough of Minnesota weather and would love to get back to San Diego.”
With Cicely reaching into a stack of resumes, Legato stole a glance. Her thick, jet-black eyebrows reminded him of the olive skinned Greek girls from Astoria he’d see working in diners and run-down family owned coffee houses.
But Cicely gave off a different vibe. Her Maria Callas eyebrows slashed against pale Minnesota skin like skid marks in the snow. And she seemed to be hiding behind somebody else’s face. A gawky introvert in disguise.
“Legato. That’s a nice name,” she said. “Puerto Rican? Dominican?”
She lifted her gaze from the papers, eyes narrow. Maybe aimed at his wide nose – or focused on his mocha-tinted skin. “Italian? Really?”
He choked back a groan and answered the question she was too polite to ask. “Half-Italian, half-black.”
Cicely grinned the awkwardness away. “Andy speaks highly of you. He says you’re a good friend. Somebody he could always trust.”
“I like to think so.”
But her face curled a little, signaling more awkwardness on the way. “He also says you left the police force under… complicated circumstances.”
“You could say that.”
“Could you tell me more?”
“I could. Or I could tell you about growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood with bars on the windows and a school with metal detectors at the door.”
“That’s nice, but what I wanted –“
Legato leaned forward, time for the sweet talk Big Trick recommended. “What you want is somebody who speaks the language your customers understand. Am I right? Somebody who can keep this place safe even if that means slapping around a little. I’m guessing that matters more in this place than a spotless record.” Playing the tough guy New Yorker role to a Minnesotan was always an option. Sometimes it even qualified as sweet talk.
The lady fought off a schoolgirl’s blush and said, “Can you start tomorrow?”
“What time do you need me?”
“Ten in the morning. We’ll train you for a while, start you as soon as you’re ready.”
Legato reached for a handshake, but three bangs at the door froze them both.
Cicely’s eyebrows lifted. “Yes?”
A woman’s voice aimed for a scream, but couldn’t get there. “The police need you! It’s… they need you.”
She gathered Legato’s papers. “Just a second, Tammy. Jake, I look forward to –“
Three more knocks, louder, almost angry. “Cicely, it’s… Please!” Now the voice was soaked in sobs. Cicely raced to the door, opened it to find somebody crouching there like her legs had given out. A stripper clad in a robe, crying.
Cicely kneeled, mouth stretched wide. “What is it, Tammy?”
Tammy sputtered words that almost made a sentence. “Cassandra. Because the… police and. They called and she’s…”
Cicely turned to Legato, her face now slack. “We’ll… talk tomorrow,” She gave him a flaccid handshake then repeated, “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Knowing a thing or two about the delivery of bad news, Legato recognized her shattered look. And he knew that too many words was always a bad idea at those moments. “Thank you,” he said, warm hand on her shoulder, another move he’d learned from his detective days. Contact always made the news less awful.
But Cicely pulled away from the contact, shuddering, eyes scanning the hallway for answers. And Tammy didn’t move at all.
So he slipped away, took a seat at the bar and nodded to Big Trick. “Whiskey, neat.”
And he drank. With every sip, the tortured squeals coming from Cicely’s office slowly faded into somebody else’s problem.
Legato tried to piece everything together. Was Cassandra a dancer? Was she dead now? And who killed her?
He was detecting again, a habit he needed to break. That’s why he had to take off, pull himself away from the bar – even if it meant leaving behind a half-full glass of whiskey on a night he really needed it.
Sleep didn’t come easy that night. A heating duct’s rattle didn’t help. Plus too many thoughts and none of them restful. The dead stripper. The new job. Mounting bills. The past he couldn’t drink away. Legato spent the first few hours in bed staring at the backs of his eyelids. Maybe a little TV would settle his nerves.
Or maybe not. “… the victim was a twenty-two-year-old exotic dancer named Cassandra Strickland, known to friends and co-workers as Krissy Sweet. Her body was found with multiple lacerations and –“
Getting away from talk of bodies and lacerated victims seemed a good idea at two am. So Legato gave his legs a stretch and went to the building’s back steps for a smoke. But he forgot to leave the detective memories behind.
He’d always had those days when early retirement seemed like a good move. He’d get sick of the Northside grind, sick of delivering bad news to mothers who could always see it coming before he got out of the car. He grew sick of paperwork, sick of the fried chicken and linguini sauce jokes the boys at the station never got tired of telling. So he made a move toward early retirement, a boneheaded move really, like nobody would notice half a million dollars missing from a crack peddler’s duffle bag.
When the bag seemed light to somebody in the evidence room, they made a phone call…
Legato took the least awful option. That meant no admission of guilt, but no pension either and good luck getting another job in law enforcement. The toughest part was the phone call to Mama, long-distance to Brooklyn explaining why she could no longer tell all her friends her son was a detective out there in that cold-ass Minneapolis place. But then the email came from some woman named Cicely, saying Andy was leaving and recommending him for the gig.
That cigarette on the back steps took forever to die. No sense chasing after sleep now, he was up for the day. He climbed to his feet and spent the morning’s early hours reciting a new mantra: A job is a job. A job is a job.
Without the maddening pound of a bass-heavy beat, the club just seemed wrong. And it lacked menace. Legato sat in his 91 Mazda across the street until the clock hit ten. Laptop perched on his dashboard, he gave the online classifieds another chance to rescue him. There had to be something, anything. But no. After having no luck, he left the car, jiggled the lock shut and crossed the street to Bootsie’s.
Just inside the front door, Cicely greeted him with a well-rehearsed grin. “Are we wide awake and ready for our first day?” she asked. Not a hint of the previous evening’s nightmare on her face.
“Sure. Everything’s… okay?”
Her grin tightened, determined to give away nothing. “Everything is fine. We… lost a friend last night. It was horrible. But everything is fine.”
It started with a tour of the club. Cicely showed Legato the front bar area, the main-stage, the dressing rooms, the restrooms and supply closet like nothing had happened. Apart from a quaver in her voice when listing the names and shifts of the dancers, nothing in her demeanor would have announced that somebody she was close to had been slashed to pieces less than a day earlier.
Andy showed up, smiling that slanted smile that could always brush the tension away. With a gentle nod, Cicely ducked into her office, happy to have help. “Andy! Can you… give me a hand and show Mister Legato the ropes a little.”
And she was gone.
Legato gave his buddy a hug and said, “Change your mind about going back to San Diego?”
Andy Chuckled. “Never. Seriously, I’m done with Minnesota winters. Just came back to check on you, see how you’re getting adjusted here.”
“I’m trying. It’s a little different than detective work, but I’ll get it.”
Andy’s stare lingered, his smile fading. “I’m glad you didn’t have any issues over… the incident. I told Cicely you were cool. I’m like, ‘he’s a good guy, he just made a bad decision.’”
“It’s fine. Thanks for helping out.”
More staring, enough to make Legato feel like a caged animal. Sympathy was one thing, but from Andy? A dumpy fat guy without much going for him, part-time police station janitor, for fuck’s sake, looking at him like he was coated in dog shit. “So… about those ropes,” Legato said. “The ones you’re showing me?”
“Yes. Here’s the thing to remember about a bouncer’s job: You’re not paid to handle things when they get out of control. You’re paid to keep things from getting out of control. You’re the best friend, a nice guy until they give you a reason not to be.”
Legato studied his friend’s face, wondered what it would look like for him not to be a nice guy. He never saw that side in five years at the station. Just good old affable Andy.
Andy then moved to the bar, lifted a bowl of popcorn. “This is something to use if guys get a little out of hand – and I’m not talking about bashing them over the head with it.” Then came that corny laugh, complete with a snort. “No, but really what I’m talking about is using it to keep a guy’s temper down. You can be all like, ‘Dude, have some popcorn, chill.’ Then he’ll chill usually. The popcorn gets him thirsty, so he’s buying drinks again and that makes Cicely happy. Plus he’s not pissed at you now so you get no fight. And that means you get no lawsuit. That’s something else that makes Cicely happy.”
A dancer entered the club, rail-thin body, stern face, clad in an overcoat. “Hi, Andy!” she said, slinking past them and down the hallway.
A dorky grin crept onto Andy’s face and stayed for a while. “Hi, Raven.” He said to Legato, “That’s Raven. Nice girl and all. They’re mostly nice, the dancers. Even Cassandra was.”
“Cassandra was that dancer who…?”
“ Yeah. The one you heard about. Probably on the news and all. That was sad and stuff.”
Legato’s inner detective itched at him. “You know anything about what happened?”
“I don’t know, things happen to these girls, you know. I mean, they’re just dancers but sometimes they get into other stuff. Uncool stuff.”
Andy leaned in, voice low. “Stuff happens in the back room. That’s all I’m saying.”
Reminding himself that he wasn’t a detective anymore, he closed the conversation with a smile.
“There’s paperwork in the office that Cicely wants you to do and stuff.”
They stepped into the office and the three of them did the paperwork and lightened the lead-heavy mood with small talk. Nobody mentioned the dead girl.
But leaving the office was weird. At a booth in the corner, new a dancer – redhead with hair stacked high – talked to a guy that snagged Legato’s attention. He knew the look: rigid posture, blank face like he’s studying something, a suit his mother would love. The guy was a detective.
Worse yet, the face was familiar. And when the handsome man shared a smug grin, the name came to Legato without delay. This was Chad Phillipson, not somebody he wanted to see.
Hoping to slip past the two, Legato turned to face the bar and quietly sidestepped to the door. But the conversation between the dancer and Phillipson ended too quickly.
“Is that the Half Italian stallion?” the detective shouted, voice laced with frat boy bravado.
Legato turned slowly, forcing his lips into a grin. “Half-Italian, all stallion!”
They shared a handshake and a man-hug, bumping shoulders but nothing else. “Had a feeling our paths would cross sooner or later, Legato!”
He put his hands up, a mock ‘surrender.’ “You got me.”
Phillipson chuckled. “Slow down, Stallion. Let’s wait till you get charged first. How the fuck you doing! You holding up okay since… you know, leaving?”
“Things are cool. Miss you guys, but yeah, I’m doing okay.”
Awkwardness intruded as Phillipson’s eyes gave the place a quick sweep. “Working here, huh?” He made no effort to hide his sneer. “The new gig looks… interesting. Nice scenery, maybe some fun benefits?”
Legato shrugged. “Just started, but yeah, free drinks, that’s about it.”
Another sneer from Phillipson. “Yeah, I bet. Horndog like you? Probably have to hose you down after a shift.”
He faked a chuckle, easing toward the door. “Look, let’s catch up some time. But right now I need to –“
“Hold on, Stallion. I’m not here on a social call. I’m sniffing around about the girl. What can you tell me?”
Phillipson gestured a slit across the neck. “You know. The girl. Did you know her?”
“I told you. I just started here.”
“But you know the supporting cast, right? What can you tell me about this Raven girl, or Tammy, or the bartender?”
“Sorry, got nothing on them.”
“Huh. You get a new job with a bunch of strangers. No info on anybody.”
“There’s Andy. You know about as much as me about him from the station.”
“And that’s it.”
Legato hid a smirk. He knew the game because he’d played it himself in interrogation. Build a rapport with the guy, become his buddy. Then you’re just two guys chatting and he’s telling you stuff he’d forgotten he was concealing. But Legato had given him nothing so Phillpson had jumped to the second step: push a little harder. Then you’re his buddy lost in the weeds, needing help. And who wouldn’t help a buddy? “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was being treated like a suspect.”
They shared another laugh, this one shorter. “Not yet.” He shrugged, then gave his buddy’s shoulder a warm tap. “But if nobody around here has anything to say, we may talk again.”
“No more bullshit, Phillpson. This conversation is about my departure from the force, isn’t it?”
“Could be. I’m no fan of crooked cops. But if you have nothing to hide, this conversation isn’t about anything.”
“I have nothing to hide,” Legato said, face like granite, unblinking eyes locked in a stare down. But he blinked hard when a scream intruded. Not a real one – Janet Leigh in Psycho, coming from the detective’s pocket. A ringtone only Phillipson would find clever.
“That’s me. Hold on a second.” With a smug laugh, he answered his cellphone. “Detective Phillipson.”
The stare down ended as the phone conversation heated up. Something about needing more time because nobody’s talking.
Legato wasn’t really listening. A notepad on the table drew his focus away. Mostly names followed by question marks. Ginger? Big Trick? Andy? A few words were underlined by angry slashes. Back room, Prostitution, Family problems.
Phillpson hung up and the stare down continued. “You got anything for me?”
“I’m not under rest. Is that correct?”
“Come on, Legato! Seriously? It’s me! And you’re playing the silence game?”
“I’m not playing any game. I’m asking a question: am I under arrest?”
Phillipson looked away, sighed. “You are not under arrest and you are free to leave. Happy?”
He turned to the front door and stepped out. “Very.”
Phillipson followed. “You’re making this more complicated than it needs to be, Legato! All I need is a name or two and I can move on with the investigation. But if you give me nothing, it adds another name to the list.”
Legato was at the car by now, jiggling the lock open. But he stopped. “The list?”
“Come on. You know. Possible suspects. Can you help me out here? Give me a few names?” Phillipson bent to the window as the ex-detective eased into the driver’s seat. “As of now, Legato, you are not a suspect. But with your history, I can’t promise you that won’t change.”
“My history? One fuck-up is a history?”
“That’s all it takes. Look at it from our perspective. We’ve got a guy who put his career in jeopardy by stealing from a drug dealer’s stash. Who knows? Maybe he’d try to mug a stripper – one from a wealthy family, knock her down, get pissed when she has no money. Get violent.”
This was another game Legato had played. Threaten somebody with bogus, trumped-up charges, then sit back and watch the nervous man sing like Pavoratti. The bluff usually worked. But if Phillipson was bullshitting, his performance was Oscar-worthy. His eyes didn’t show a hint of weakness.
With nothing but an empty stare to offer, Legato started his car and took off. If helping this smug prick with a few names was the way to snake out of this mess, he was ready to do it. Before getting home, he wrote down a few words. Back room Prostitution Family problems.
Family problems seemed like a good place to start. So he did some homework, dug around the internet when he should have been sleeping and learned what he could about the Strickland clan. Mostly what he learned was how much the family valued their privacy. Not much info on daddy. A website where he’d boasted of the millions he’d earned in the stock market or the way he yanked himself up from modest New England beginnings. But evidence of any kind of family or kids stayed hidden.
Mother Corrine had a Facebook page littered with her lovely kids’ pictures, but after the teenage years, her youngest daughter’s image was gone. There were blanks that needed filling in. And that meant Legato would have to take a trip out late at night.
The lights at Bootsie’s hadn’t yet gone dim. But Legato waited, checking his watch until the music died and the last drunken customers were ushered to the parking lot. No use raising any eyebrows stopping into the club before he’d officially started working. Better to stay in the car waiting. Never mind the wind’s savage rattle against that passenger side window. The one he kept meaning to get fixed but never had the money. He spotted Big Trick’s amble toward his Range Rover and it was time to spring from his car and have an “accidental” meeting.
“Hey!” Legato shouted. “Big Trick, right?”
“That’s the name, doctor.” They shared a fist bump. “You digging the new gig?”
“It’s cool.” He studied Big Trick’s face, looking for a way into his head. “So… um, I’m wondering if you’d be okay with me asking you a few questions.”
Big Trick pulled back a little. Bad sign.
Legato moved cautiously. “No big thing, I just want to know a few things about the club. You know how it is, new job and everything. You want to get as much information as you can.”
“Oh, cool. I thought you was about to get into it about old girl. Cops was on my ass about her all day long. Told them cats, “I don’t know a damn thing.” But I’m thinking, even if I did, they ain’t hearing it from me.”
“Yeah, cops can be a pain. All those questions.” He paused, figuring he’d need another way in.
Big Trick braced against a giant gust by hugging himself, giving Legato a glimpse of the bling on his wrist. Twenty-four karat and five times bigger than it needed to be. Plus it matched the earrings, which matched the necklace. “Look, I hate ask for a favor so soon after we’ve just met…”
“What you need, doctor? I can lend a brother a hand.”
“Well… I found out we’d have to wait three weeks before the first check so I…”
By then Big Trick was already pulling a grapefruit-sized knot of cash from his pocket. “Let’s see here, we got fifty, fifty-five, sixty…”
“Look, I don’t want to put you out or anything –“
“Put me out?” he yelled, face twisted like he’d just taken a slapped. “Doctor, I can swallow a loss of seventy-five like nothing. This here is baby change. Here!” He tucked a wad in Legato’s hand.
He whistled in admiration like he’d never seen so much cash. “Man, I gotta’ learn how to mix drinks. Seems like that’s where the big money’s at.” But this was bullshit, a move toward flattering the man’s ego. They both knew Big Trick didn’t get that knot from bartending. And Legato hoped finding his real source of income – a source he’d hinted at when they first met at the bar – might bring him closer to knowing about Cassandra’s death.
Ego sufficiently flattered, Big Trick took a glance around, leaned into Legato’s ear. “Come on, get in my Rover. Too cold to talk out here.”
Once they took a seat, Big Trick drove off, giving Legato a tour of the bodies on display along East Lake street. Mostly the ladies looked frail and unhappy. “You serious about this shit?” Big Trick asked. “Or you just curious? ‘Cause if you just curious, I can tell you what I told them cops – not a damn thing.”
“Dude, I’m scraping together nickels to pay my rent, okay? And a bouncer’s salary probably won’t fix what’s fucked up with my car – and it sure won’t get me a new one.”
“A’ight, a’ight. You want to know how to use that bouncer connection, right? How to get paid from that back room action?”
“Wait, so you get the girls from the club? From Bootsie’s?”
“Hell yeah! Why not? They right there, begging to be pimped. They already getting offers to step into the back room. All you gotta’ do is take command of the situation.”
“Are all the girls at the club down with that?”
Big Trick paused, weighed his words before speaking. “Some play the game, some don’t. The game ain’t for everybody. Some want a price too hefty. Some already got pimps. And some just won’t let theyselves be pimped by any-damn-body.”
“What about the ones who have plenty of money? I mean, that girl that got murdered, for example. What was her name again… Katrina?”
“Cassandra,” Big Trick corrected him. But he said nothing more.
“I mean, she had lots of money in her family, right? That’s what I heard on the news anyway.”
“You hear a lot of things on the news, doctor. But if this just me and you talking, I never could figure out how to rope that girl into the game.” He stared into the distance, ignoring the red light turning green. He seemed oddly saddened by his failure. “Never could crack that code.”
“So she didn’t do anything… in the back room?”
“Didn’t say that. I said I couldn’t get her on my team. Truth be told, I think she was on somebody’s team.”
“You mean, another pimp?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say her fiancé was running her show. Dude named Tolliver. From what I could tell he had her under some firm control. Had that hand up her ass like a puppetmaster.”
Big Trick stopped the car in front of an old apartment building that seemed ready to collapse. “You wanna’ step in, check the game out in person?” He sent a gaze into Legato’s eyes that nearly stung. It felt like a dare. “You so curious about the game, right?”
But a quick scan revealed the place as a bad idea at two in the morning. Too many bodies darting about. Not enough escape routes. “Maybe some other time.”
“Cool. You want a ride back to your car?”
“You want to know any more about the game, you know where to find a brother!”
After a fist bump, Legato strutted eight blocks back to his car, his path dotted by vagrants, gangbangers, overflowed dumpsters that spilled tattered clothes and rancid milk to the sidewalk. It wasn’t the war zone he grew up in — pre-gentrified Brooklyn – but it was dangerous enough for him to employ what he called his ‘Brooklyn strut.” walking fast without looking like he was walking fast.
Legato’s first full shift at Bootsie’s was slow, a typical Sunday. Not much to do for the first few hours but talk to co-workers. He met the redhead with the stacked hair. Up close she looked at least a decade his senior, greeting him with the dainty handshake of a Victorian lady – odd for a woman clad only in glass heels and a silk robe.
“The new bouncer, huh? I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure. I’m Ginger.”
“Jake Legato, nice to meet you.”
“You sound funny, Jake Legato. Like you’re from somewhere else.” She hadn’t let his hand go yet.
“Guilty as charged. I’m from Brooklyn. And I think our paths did cross for a second. I saw you talking to that cop.”
She yanked her hand back. “Yeah, that asshole. He talk to you too, honey?”
“Sure did. Wanted to know if I knew the girl, if I’d known anybody here, everything. Guy was up my ass for almost an hour.”
“Only an hour? Lucky you. He talked to me on the night of the murder, then had more questions the next day.”
“You have anything for him? Any info that might help?”
“I wish. Cassandra didn’t really hang with the girls. Her fiancé wasn’t crazy about that. The two of them were at each other like rattlesnakes. Always fighting. What about you? You have any info for officer Friendly?”
“Nothing. Not sure why he thought I’d have anything. I just started here, never even met the girl.”
“Well… I don’t know, it’s a thing sometimes around here with bouncers and bartenders. Things get weird. Guys who work here can sometimes come with an agenda.”
“What do you mean?”
“They want to pimp the girls, they want to stalk them, they want to marry them. So they get a job here. Easy access. And so shit gets messy. They used to have a ton a rules about employees dating dancers, but they gave up because too many people just did what they wanted to do anyway.”
Legato studied her face, wanted to leap into a million questions without scaring her away. “What about you? How’d you wind up here?”
“Plan B, baby. Medical school didn’t work out.”
He waited for the punch line, but only found a sense of loss in her eyes. “Seriously?”
“Hard to picture, isn’t it? But yeah, that was the plan. Until the bills added up and I missed too many classes because I was dancing that day or too tired from dancing the day before.” She paused, stared at a ketchup stain on the wall. “But that’s everybody’s story in this place, isn’t it? Plan B. Nobody winds up at Bootsie’s on purpose.”
Legato offered a smile. But she wanted more: “What’s your story?”
“I guess I’m just another plan B. Like you. Like Cassandra.”
“Got here a little too late for Cassandra, didn’t you?”
“Oh, now we’re playing coy. You know that’s why you’re working here. You can tell the cop any damn thing you want. But I know better. I know you’re here for the game.”
“You think I’m a pimp?”
“That’s plan B, isn’t it? Come in as a bouncer, scope the girls. I’ve seen that game, honey. I’ve lived it. You’ve got an awful lot of questions for a career bouncer.”
Without an answer, he tried to backpedal from the awkwardness. “Look, I’m just –“
A loud crash leaked out of Cicely’s office. Eager to get away, Legato raced inside to find the room broken by sadness. Cicely stood there, leaning against her desk and staring the floor, now littered with an odd assortment of stuff: a coffee mug, stockings and garters, a teddy bear, jewelry, a Tupperware container, winter gloves, a pair of headphones.
Legato asked, “You okay, Cicely?”
She answered without looking up. “Kind of. I don’t know.” Her hair was a mess, her face raw from tears.
He bent to help clean up the floor, placing the items on the desk.
“That’s Cassandra’s stuff,” Cicely said. “I wanted to bring it to her parent’s house. But it kind of fell. I’m really sorry.”
He stood and cradled her face. She finally lifted her gaze from the floor and said, “I have to bring it to them. They probably want their daughter’s stuff, but I can see why it might be hard for them to come back here and get it and…” Her breath was racing away from her.
“It’s okay, Cicely. Look, I can bring it to them if you let me off a little early. It’s really dead out there.”
“Thank you.” Pointing to the bottom drawer of her desk, she said, “There’s one in there. A box.”
He scooped out the box and gathered everything. “I’m going to need their address.”
“Top drawer, black address book. It’s under S for Strickland.”
He grabbed the address book, taking a discrete glance at other addresses that might prove helpful. All the dancers were listed, the other employees, Andy’s new address in San Diego, his old address labeled good until April 3rd. He gave the pages a quick scan for more, But Cicely startled him. “She used to be a dancer, you know. A real dancer – not stripper, dancer, but the kind who wore those funny shoes. She studied dancing, went to college and everything.”
He gathered everything, then studied his boss’s unsteady eyes. “You going to be okay?”
She gave him a feeble nod, then took a seat at her desk again, the lost look on her face slowly fading as Legato headed to his car with the box of items.
The inner city’s hard concrete and steel surrendered to the leafy comfort of the Western suburbs as he took off for Golden Valley. The ride lasted less than an hour, enough time to give himself a game plan. There was more to making the trip than generosity. It gave him a chance to talk to Cassandra’s parents. But Talking to Cassandra’s parents was going to be hardest part. It always was. And talking to them without a badge would take more than a box full of assorted items.
Nobody answered the first two rings of the Strickland doorbell. He tried again and finally got her mother. It had to be her mother because he recognized the look of grieving mother, that empty and confused scowl, eyes reaching out, asking why? “Yes?”
“Mrs. Strickland? Cassandra’s mother?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“I work at Bootsie’s, the club your daughter –“
“I’m aware of Bootsie’s. What can I help you with?”
He lifted the box, showed the contents, grappling for the right words. “Can I come in?” He waited for her to step aside, putting the game plan together in his head. How he’d get from yes, come right in to answering a series of deeply personal questions.
But he never got there. The woman shook her head. “I’m afraid not.”
“We don’t want the stuff.” She stood there, arms crossed, lips tight, holding back sobs. “You can keep it. Or give it to that boy, that Tolliver boy. But we don’t want any of it.”
Then Legato smiled a little, not really sure what to do. It had been a while since he’d faced down a parent on a bad news call. And even when he was in practice, he always felt clumsy and weak. “I can totally understand if you don’t want to be reminded of her.”
“Thank you. I wish the best for your family.”
“We’ll be fine,” she said, her voice flat. Then she shut the door. And Legato headed to the car again, feeling like shit for using her pain as an excuse to check out that Tolliver boy.
It took a phone call back to Cicely’s office and another hour of driving to get to Tolliver’s home in a different moneyed suburb, this one south of Minneapolis.
As Legato carried the box to what he hoped was the right address, the music hit him before he’d reached the top step. Hip-hop, at least two decades old and almost loud enough to be scary in this neighborhood. But the dated rapping didn’t leak from a pimped out Benz. It came from a classy two-bedroom home in a classy two bedroom kind of neighborhood.
After giving the doorbell a ring, he waited too long for an answer. Finally the door was clumsily and cautiously opened.
Black dude, eyes glassy and squinting to find somebody ten inches in front of him. Mood clearly fueled by coke or something stronger. “What’s good, dog?” he slurred, struggling to stay upright.
“Looking for Tolliver. You him?”
The guy giggled a little. “Naw, you want Tolliver. That ain’t me.”
“Can you get him?”
Another giggle. Then he turned and yelled. “Yo, Tolliver!”
Tolliver came to the door. Smug rich white kid, perfect hair. Almost as good-looking as he thought he was. “Yo!”
Legato held up the box, fumbled for the right words and finally just said, “The people at the club thought you might want to have this.”
Both guys took a peek. Tolliver’s face faded into blankness. Then he said, “Come on in.”
Stepping inside, Legato’s eyes widened to take in the home’s expensive bad taste. Zebra-stripped carpet, blood red leather sofa, posters of dead rappers and forgotten nineties movies. Tolliver nodded to a dinning room table. “You can put it there, dog.”
Setting the box down, Legato scrambled for an opening question that wouldn’t offend.
But Tolliver had a question of his own. “You really from Brooklyn, dude?”
Taken off-guard, he had no reply to the easy question.
But the questions kept coming. “I mean, old-school Brooklyn, dangerous Brooklyn before the white boys came in and squeezed the brothers out.”
“You read my accent or did you ask around?”
“Little of both. You sound like Mike Tyson – but in a lower register. Plus I did a little snooping around when I heard you had some questions about Cassandra.”
“Any reason my questions would bother you?” Legato asked.
Tolliver chuckled. “Dude, what’s with the third degree? You here to deliver the box or you got an investigation going on?”
The other guy almost tumbled to the floor in laughter.
“I don’t believe I caught your friend’s name.”
Tolliver’s face tightened, gaze locked heavy on Legato’s. “This is my friend, Lavon. Lavon, this is Jake Legato. Former cop.”
Legato grinned, no sense getting pissed. Through the corner of his eyes he looked for something to help ease the tension. On a living room counter he found it. An assortment of knives and guns splayed out like Halloween candy. He nodded toward it. “Nice. Care to give me a tour of your little museum?”
“Everything’s legal and registered.”
Legato shrugged. “Didn’t say it wasn’t. Just curious.”
Tolliver’s face lightened a little, then he stepped to the counter, held up a funky looking gun with a long barrel. “This little dude is a German Lugar, goes way back. No longer functional, but it looks cool, right?”
The tour went on as he held up a switchblade, then opened it, startling Legato. “Come on, dude! Like this is the first time you’ve had a blade pulled on you? And you’re from Brooklyn?”
And just like that, Legato was the only one in the room not collapsing in pothead laughter.
“My man looked like he just had a rattlesnake at his ankle!” Lavon said. “Yo Tolliver, show him that medieval shit you got!”
But there was no medieval shit on the table. And Tolliver’s face went flush. No more laughter. “Shut up, Lavon.”
“Oh, there’s more?” Legato asked. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that collection also.”
“Yeah and that shit is tight!” Lavon yelled. “All Robin Hood-looking and shit!”
“That’s enough, Lavon! Just shut up.”
“Yo, don’t trip off this dude!” Lavon added. “My man ain’t even a real cop – not no more at least!
“Good point, Lavon,” Legato said, holding on Tolliver’s glare. “No reason you should be afraid of a guy who’s not a real cop.”
Tolliver buckled into slow, mocking laughter. “The way I see it, if you’re not a cop, there’s no reason I should show you anything.”
“In fact, there’s no reason I can’t tell you to leave my house.”
“You can tell me anything you like. But I may not be in the most obedient mood right now.”
More laughter from Tolliver. “You hear that, Lavon? Brooklyn’s getting a little pissed. We better watch out.” Then he sent his glare back to Legato. “Dude, you can play that tough guy routine with other people. But I don’t buy it. I know too much about your history.”
“Such as Mister tough-guy Brooklyn couldn’t handle the Minneapolis police department. I don’t know why you left, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for being too rough with the brothers.”
“And you’re an expert on how the brothers get treated by the MPD?”
“No, but I got friends who are. Like Lavon.”
“Real talk!” Lavon shouted, his voice now muffled by a sofa cushion.
Tolliver took a seat next to his friend, leaned back and propped his feet on the coffee table. “Okay Brooklyn, give me your best war story. What’s the worst beating you’ve taken?”
Legato kept his eyes on the kid and found something he’d missed before. He’d seen this guy’s type in interrogation. Role players, the detectives would call them. Usually suburban white kids reared on Tarantino flicks and hip-hop. Liked to talk tough and give up nothing. But show them enough true menace and they’d wilt every time.
Legato sat in front of the guys, ignoring Levon’s snickers. Then he pointed to a small scar under his left eye. “How about I tell you about this. See the scar?”
Tolliver smirked. “Yeah, I see that. What, you get that from some mugger or maybe the bully from Brooklyn high school?”
Legato shook his head. “When I was a kid, there was this guy on the block, never knew his real name but they called him Tweaks. Every block had one. Dude used to sniff glue day and night, lived for the shit, dug through dumpsters to find an extra tube. That guy. The neighborhood joke, everybody laughed at his sorry ass – the way he’d twitch and stutter. The way he’d get lost in mid-conversation if you asked him how was doing.
“Then he moved up to heroin and the shit wasn’t funny anymore. He started robbing people, hiding in alleyways with a tire iron. He’d be in and out of prison and some days you’d see him with bloodstains on his collar that he wouldn’t explain.”
The guys leaned forward.
“One day I come home from school, hearing screams in the hallway as I walk up – Mama’s screams. When I get there, Tweaks is there, this baseball bat in his hand and Mama’s laying on the floor, arms up, bracing for a swing. Then he looks up, staring at me, kind of laughing, but it’s hard to tell with Tweaks. He raises the bat over Mama, says to me, ‘You better talk some sense to your mother. You hear me? I need money and this is not going to get it!’ He shows me this tiny wad of cash. He stares into Mama’s eyes. ‘Come on, lady! You got more than that!’ Mama was shaking, kept whimpering ‘no’ over and over. She’s looking at me, she’s looking back at Tweaks and I’m scared. Daddy was gone by then, no man in the house. So Mama had a gun, kept it hidden under the bathroom sink. I scampered away, straight to the bathroom, hoping I could get back before it was too late. I was going to shoot this guy, right between the eyes if I had to. I was going put down Tweaks before he put Mama down.
“But then I got back into the living room, that revolver shaking in my hand like an egg timer. I aimed it at his chest, but there’s something about holding a gun and aiming it at somebody. Tweaks started laughing, then came after me with his hand out. He may have been out of his mind, but he knew I didn’t have the heart. I was only twelve, could barely pee straight. And I was talking about shooting somebody? I tried to take aim at his chest again, but I lost my nerve. He turned around, raised his bat and started to swing for Mama’s head. And I fired three shots, two went through his ribcage, sent him to the carpet, shaking like a marlin somebody plucked from the river. The third shot? It went into a mirror off to my left side. A splinter came back and got me just under the eye.” He pointed to the scar again.
The kid said nothing.
“You ready to cooperate with me, Tolliver?”
“Yes, sir,” he mumbled, back erect now, almost respectfully. No more jokes.
Lavon gulped hard.
“Okay. How about if the two of you lead me to that second stash of weapons?”
The guys lead him up the staircase and into a bedroom. They stepped over a jumble of dirty clothes and into a closet. Tolliver pulled out a giant garbage bag and opened it, revealing a bunch of old rusted guns, knives and various archaic tools of torture. He said, “This is it, I swear. Nothing else.”
Legato dug through it. “Where do you get these things?”
“Online sites, old gun stores. Sometimes I get lucky and find stuff.”
“Yo Tolliver, show them that knife you found at the club!”
Tolliver pulled out an old rusty knife, stared at it. “Badass, isn’t it?”
“When did you find that?” Legato asked.
“Yesterday. It’s not as old as the ones I usually dig, but I like it.”
“You found that at the club? At Bootsie’s? Didn’t it occur to you that the police might be interested in that? Especially with your fiancé just getting murdered.”
Tolliver groaned. “Dude, she wasn’t murdered at the club. And she sure as fuck wasn’t murdered with this.” He demonstrated its dullness by running a finger along its edges.
Legato studied Tolliver’s glowing face. He grinned like a toddler enthralled by a jiggling set of car keys. A young fiancé with an odd way of grieving? Or something weirder, more troubling? The sight made Legato’s stomach ripple. He pulled the knife down, unable to watch it anymore. Goddamn role players and their fondness for violence. “Look, here’s how it’s going to go: I’m going to ask you some questions and you’re going to answer them. If I’m not satisfied with the answers, I’ve got a few friends at the police department who might be interested in your little toy box. Do you understand that?”
Both guys nodded then followed him back downstairs to the living room couch. The questions started once everyone was seated.
“What do you know about what went on in the back room of Bootsie’s?”
“What back room?” Tolliver asked.
“Don’t play coy with me. It took me twelve seconds before I knew about the back room. And your fiancé danced there for years and you knew nothing about it?”
Tolliver’s eyes darted. “You mean, Cassandra?”
“Who else are we talking about?”
“I mean… I knew stuff went on back there, but – not Cassandra. Right?”
“You tell me. Did you get her involved in anything illegal? Was she a prostitute?”
“No! Of course not! I mean… as far as I know.”
“As far as you know? Your fiancé could have been prostituting herself and you knew nothing about it?”
“Look, you didn’t know Cassandra. That was her way. She did what she wanted to do.”
“And nobody ever confronted her about selling herself in the back room?”
An itch crept across Tolliver’s face. “Well… there was one guy that worked there.”
“Bartender? Brother with a bald head?”
“No, not Big Trick. Another guy. Fat dude, worked as a bouncer.”
“The only other bouncer I know of was Andy.”
“Yeah, that’s it – Andy!”
Legato brought their faces together, sent a grimace into Tolliver’s uneasy eyes. “I swear to God, you better not be lying to me.”
“I’m not. It’s him. Couple weeks ago, he offered to have Cassandra’s… company for a night. And I turned him down, didn’t want Cassandra mixed up in all that. He was pretty pissed.”
“What happened next?”
“Nothing happened next. He quit working there and that was that. You don’t think he…?”
“What do you think? Your fiancé winds up dead days later. No other suspect turns up.”
Tolliver’s face slowly twisted into something close to horror. “I don’t know what to think, dude. I mean, Jesus, do you know how many shady characters hung around that place? Andy was a teddy bear compared to those pimps and muggers and drug dealers. But do you really think so. Andy?”
With no answers to offer, Legato gave him a pat on the shoulder and backed away. “We’ll figure this out. Give me some time.”
Sleep eluded him once again, sending him to the back steps for a second night, cigarette dangling from his lips, eyes open but almost dead. Then he started pacing, dodging memories dragged up by the story he’d shared with Tolliver.
Legato learned a lot about himself during that night’s adventure with Tweaks. He learned who he was meant to be, his role if life. Later he’d learn how easy it was for that role to be yanked away from him. All it took was the temptation of a crack peddler’s duffle bag.
After stepping back inside, he reached into his fridge, found the last beer. It didn’t erase the memories, but it settled him into a good night’s sleep – a huge help considering the next day’s agenda: an awkward early morning visit to an old friend.
Andy lived in a tiny apartment in a working class Northeast neighborhood. It was a greying brick building lined by a rusty fence and elderly neighbors who didn’t pretend they weren’t watching when a stranger like Legato showed up at the front door.
It wasn’t his first visit. He’d helped his friend move in a few years earlier and attended a birthday party with eight others, mostly cops from the station who felt sorry for Andy. Before buzzing the buzzer, Legato took a deep breath.
“Yeah?” Andy yelled.
“It’s Legato, you up?”
“Not really. Um… what do you need?”
“If you’re not up, I need you to get up. We gotta talk.”
A pause, then: “I guess.” The door unlocked with a loud click.
Andy let him in. “Everything cool? I mean… it’s kind of early for a visit.”
A discreet scan of the place revealed nothing unusual. Living room floor littered with half-empty boxes. “Packing up, huh?”
“Yeah, it shouldn’t take much time. Not much to pack. You want a toaster? It’s not in bad shape.”
Legato picked up the toaster, ran his finger along the rusty edge and tested the springs inside. But really he was buying time.
“So… what did you need again?” Andy asked.
Still staring at the toaster, he said. “I just had a few questions about Cassandra.”
“Damn shame, wasn’t it? What’d you want to know?”
“I’m curious. I suppose you were questioned, right?”
“A little, yeah. Didn’t have much to tell them.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I’m sorry?” Andy said, voice getting shaky.
Legato turned because couldn’t study his friend’s eyes while staring at the toaster. “What did you tell them?”
“I said I was at home at the time of the murder. Never had any problem with her or anything.”
“Never? Not once?”
“What are you getting at, Legato?”
He moved closer, noticed Andy’s shifting eyes. “Anything you want to tell me about the two of you?”
Andy sat, sent his eyes to the cheap living room carpet, then mumbled, “You talked to Tolliver, didn’t you?”
“Shit,” Andy said, avoiding his friend’s gaze. “Not the kind of thing you’d want going around the rumor mill.”
“I mean you’d think he’d be so embarrassed by it, he wouldn’t want anybody to know.”
Taken off-guard, legato asked, “What would he be embarrassed by?”
Andy’s face went slack from disbelief. “That he was pimping his fiancé.”
After a deep breath, Legato took a seat in front of Andy, leaned forward. “Let’s take this from the beginning. Tolliver was pimping Cassandra?”
“Yeah, he came to me with an offer. I guess I seemed like a likely customer.”
“And when he made the offer…?”
“I turned him down. To be honest I was afraid it was a set up. It seemed too good to be true. This clean-cut girl being pimped by a clean-cut guy. My spidey sense was tingling.” He looked away and added. “Let’s just say, I’ve got a little experience with that.”
“Dealing with prostitutes.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled into his armpit. “Then he kind of panicked, scared I was going to go the cops or something. So he offered me five thousand bucks to keep my mouth shut while he kept things going.”
“And you said…?”
“I said ‘okay.’ I’m not proud of it. But, Jesus, look around. You can see the money I have.”
“What happened after that?”
“Nothing happened. He paid me and that was that.”
Legato stood, not sure of his next move. Staring Andy’s face down didn’t seem likely to get results. He only knew that somebody was lying. And untangling the truth from the bullshit would go a long way toward finding Cassandra’s murder.
Andy managed a grin. “You miss your old job, or what?”
“What do you mean?”
“All these questions. You don’t think… Tolliver had something to do with the murder, do you?”
“I’m still figuring this out.” Another several seconds of staring into Andy’s eyes gave him nothing. Intense questioning probably wouldn’t get him there either. So he softened. “Andy, where do you find these girls?”
His friend grinned like a toddler with a hand in the cookie jar. “Look, it’s not like I do it all the time…”
He patted Andy on the knee. “Nobody’s judging you. I’m just curious. Do you talk to Big Trick?”
“No way. All due respect, he talks too much. I’d be scared he’d let it slip. Your best bet is going to Ginger. She’s a free agent, works without a pimp. A little pricey, but you’ll like her And if you don’t, she steer you toward somebody you will.”
Legato tried to chuckle the accusation away. “I’m afraid she won’t. I’m not a potential customer. Just curious.”
Andy smirked, not buying it. He sent a slow-motion jab to his buddy’s chest. “Hey, long as you’re not judging, neither am I.”
After a handshake, Legato started to the door, but felt he was leaving with business unfinished. Andy’s excuse could have turned out to be an invitation to more of chasing his own tail. Bouncing between Tolliver, Andy and Ginger seemed like a dead end. Needing something more solid, he stopped and turned. “You know what? I have the day off from Bootsie’s and it may be a while before we can hang. Need any help packing?”
“Not really, but I guess you can stick around if you want.”
He went to a small room down the hallway. “Cool, let me see if there’s anything in here that needs to go in a box.”
“Actually, I got most of the stuff in my bedroom – !”
But it was too late. Legato was already digging through mounds of stuff, not sure what he might find. Tossing aside boxes full of CDs, clothes, shoes and books, he tried to stall Andy by yelling, “So, you got a new gig lined up in San Diego, big guy?”
“Yeah, friend of mine says he can hook me up at this security firm.”
“Nice!” Legato answered, finding a box of stroke magazines.
“In fact, let me show you a pamphlet. The place is pretty classy.”
With Andy’s footsteps lumbering closer, he flipped through the magazines quickly, then found a few underlined website addresses on the back pages. A few names caught his attention. EscortHookUps.com, OnlineGFE.com, HottEscortsInMPLs.com.
He scanned another magazine for more sites, but was startled by a chuckle from the doorway. “Dude, you can keep that one if you like it.”
“I’m good,” Legato said. “Just checking it out. Didn’t know they made old school porn magazines anymore in the age of the internet.”
They shared another chuckle, then another hour of chuckles before Legato found an excuse to get home and logged onto the sites he’d found.
His hope was that he’d find something to lead him to the back door antics at Bootsie’s, which in turn might take him to Cassandra’s role there – and possibly Tolliver’s also.
After hours of aimless search, he caught a whiff of promise at OnlineGFE.com.
Signing up under the screen name of shadowLeg, he found a forum that discussed the ‘extra’ services available at local strip clubs. On a forum dated a month before Cassandra’s murder, somebody named BootyHound77, said:
The action at Bootsies is always Great. A couple of the girls can be a pain in the ass, too pricey, etc. But most of them are awesome. I still haven’t gotten my hands on that Cassandra chick though. She claims to be legit, but I’m sure she could had for the right price.
But somebody under the screen name of Nightcrawler said, stay away from Cassandra. She’s mine and only mine.
Legato scrolled down the screen as the argument intensified. Insults went back and forth between screen names. Then as the date of Cassandra’s murder drew near, Nightcrawler seemed to fade into the internet’s shadows. Like there was nothing left for mere words to achieve. Unable to lift his gaze from the screen, Legato wondered what Nightcrawler’s next move was. Then five heavy thumps nearly knocked his door of its hinges. “Police, open up!”
Jumping to his feet, Legato composed himself and answered the yell. “Yeah, just a second!”
But the cop just repeated. “Police, open up!”
He scrambled for his shoes, put them on then opened the door. Phillipson was there, smug as usual and quiet, letting the other cop do the talking. “Jake Legato?”
“Yeah, can I help you?”
“I’m Detective Bettencourt. This is Detective Phillipson. We’re just wondering if you could come with us to the station and answer some questions for us.”
Legato took his time before answering, knowing how much it always pissed them off when potential suspects did that. It meant they were weighing their options, which meant they knew they had options. And good luck getting information out of people who knew they didn’t have to say a goddamn thing.
“There’s another victim, Legato,” Phillipson said. “I think you can help us.”
Neither detective gave anything away. Legato could have been a suspect, a person of interest or just a former cop able to lend a hand.
“Let me get my coat.” He closed his laptop, but not before the detectives caught a glimpse of OnlineGFE.com.
“Nice,” Phillipson grunted.
Together they went to the station. Phillipson casually mentioned he was under arrest. But he sent a half-smile through the rear-view mirror that suggested his status would quickly change with cooperation.
After that no words were exchanged save for silence-killing chit-chit, like three guys on their way to their jobs at the factory. And Legato had no idea what was planned for him.
Once booked, fingerprinted and photographed, Legato went with Phillipson into the interrogation room. The detective started in slowly, observing every rule of the interrogation handbook. Start slow, idle chit-chat, don’t frighten him. “Everything going okay for you at the club? Enjoying the new job?”
“It’s lovely.” Legato groaned. He’d had enough games from Tolliver and Andy already.
A fake chuckle from Phillipson. “Yeah, I could see a gig like that not being much fun. Dealing with drunks, loud music. And it’s never good music. I mean, seriously, like a chick can’t get naked to Radiohead?”
Legato stayed silent. Learning what Phillipson knew about the second murder might help him figure things out, but first he’d have to endure the bullshit.
“But no, it’s always got to be that loud-bass, bangity-bang shit. Hip-hop, trance, trap, whatever they call it these days. I don’t know, it all makes me feel a hundred and fifty years old.”
Again Legato said nothing.
Phillipson took a sip of his coffee, leaned back. “Damn shame what happened to those girls, though.” He shook his head, then repeated, “Damn shame.”
Now Legato braced for the next two steps: find an opening and turn on the heat. And it didn’t take long for Phillipson to get there. “Just curious. What do you think happened? Any guesses?”
“You’re the cop,” Legato answered.
Phillipson shrugged. “True. But you’re right in the middle of it.” He pulled a stick of gum from his pocket, casually put it in his mouth. “Seems hard to believe you wouldn’t have a clue what happened – and you’re an ex-detective? Interesting. An ex-detective working right in that neighborhood with no idea what’s going on?”
Looking away to escape Phillipson’s glare, Legato felt his resolve crumbling.
The detective leaned forward. “Maybe you just need your memory jogged. So I’ll help you out a little.” He reached into a bag, tossed a photo on the table. A woman with her throat slashed stared back at legato, eyes wide like an accusation. “This is Krissy – real name, Cassandra. Neck slashed, chest carved out. Whoever did this was no rookie. Somebody who’s spent a great deal of their life on the wrong side of the law. An angry pimp maybe? Keeping his hoes in line, teaching them what happens when they won’t follow instructions? Or maybe a former crooked cop having some difficulty adjusting to civilian life.” He slowly pulled back and tossed a second photo to the table. “Any thoughts on victim number two?”
“I didn’t know there was a victim number two until you guys told me at the door.”
“Well, now that you know, take a good look.”
With a sigh, Legato looked down and saw a second dead body. Same expression, similar knife wounds.
“Say hello to Gayle Shiffman, known to fans as Keely Ann, found in an alley, same neighborhood, neck and chest slashed.”
“How do you know it’s connected to the first?”
“She’s a stripper just like Cassandra. Similar style murder. Plus there’s a note, just like the first one.”
“A note? Let me see it. In fact, let me see both.”
Annoyed with having to follow orders, Phillpson took out two slips of paper, handing them both over.
Legato looked at the first one, neatly typed, carefully trimmed at the edges. He read it.
Nice life you’ve made for yourself, Cassandra. Beautiful girl from a family that raised you well. You came from money, from educated people who taught you better. And this is what happens? Shaking your ass for a crowd of horny drunks at Bootsie’s?
But that’s just your way, isn’t it? You do what you want. Always too wrapped up in your own needs to notice the hearts you break along the way. But that independent streak is going to cost you. Sooner than you think.
You’re a smart girl, but there’s a lot they didn’t teach you in that upper crust prep school you went to. But don’t worry. I’ll teach you.
I’ll teach you what happens when you break the wrong heart, Cassandra. I’ll teach you why it’s not a good idea to brush aside somebody who cares, somebody who’ll give everything for you. Kiss the world goodnight, sweetheart. Tonight your time is up.
He then read the second one.
Keely Ann, get ready. It’s going to be an interesting night for you. I’ve been watching you. And following you. And you’re such a sweet girl, so pretty and pure, underneath all the filth surrounding you. But you’re going to have to die.
This time it isn’t my fault. Blame the Siren. I can hear her voice so shrill in the in the night, so demanding. I can’t ignore her calls. She needs you to be dead. And I need to make sure the Siren is satisfied. I am sorry.
Legato pulled himself away from both notes, away from the haunting pictures of both victims.
“What do you think, Stallion?”
“I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”
“Any guesses on who I should be talking to?”
“I can think of a few.”
Legato could see the detective’s eyes light up behind his ice cool mask. “Talk to me.”
“The bartender at Bootsie’s may know a little something about that world.”
“Big Trick? Not much help. He was working both nights and seems to come up empty when we ask about the girls.”
“There’s Andy, ex-bouncer at Bootsie’s and there’s Tolliver, her fiancé.”
Phillipson shook his head. “Nice try. But nope and nope. We talked to both of them and don’t find anything close to a smoking gun.”
“Andy’s got kind of a… history with hookers.”
“Andy also has an eyewitness for where he was all day today. At home getting help packing from Cicely, his boss. Oh, and your name came up once or twice with them. Care to guess the topic?”
“Don’t have a clue.”
“They were very interested in your curiosity about the goings-on in the back room of Bootsie’s. In fact, lots of people are.”
“It’s a habit. I’m an ex-cop.”
“Really? What about the website we saw you checking out when we paid you a visit? What was that, independent research? I didn’t see much before you slammed it shut, but I saw the words escort and strippers there.”
“I can explain.”
“So can I. And my explanation would make more sense to a jury.” He leaned back and said, “You ‘re a crooked cop, decided stealing money from the evidence room would be a better way to make a living than chasing perps. So you went after a different line of work, found a strip club/whorehouse desperate enough to take you and you leaped at the opportunity. Now you’re a kid in a candy story. But the lollipops were just too tempting for you. Couldn’t keep your mitts to yourself, could you, Stallion? You carved those girls up, didn’t you?”
Their eyes locked for a tense second. Then Legato asked, “Are you finished?”
“You got more for me?”
“Here’s what I got for you, Phillipson. You’re reaching and you know it.”
But Legato went on. “You’re trying to squeeze something out of me with a bogus threat. But you know if you had anything on me, I’d be sitting in a cell right now.”
More laughing from Phillipson, plus applause.
“I’ve played the game myself. Get a suspect without much on him, keep squeezing and squeezing until he squeals. But you don’t have time to play these games, Phillipson. This guy’s no rookie, you said it yourself. He’s not going to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to his door. If you don’t get help soon, he won’t be gotten. You keep playing games with me and you’ll come up empty. You know as well as I do that in a case like this – no obvious suspect, no obvious motive – if you don’t get somebody in the first two days, this case is going cold as a polar bear’s ass.”
“And your solution is?”
“Let me help you.”
“I can travel in that world, Phillipson. You can’t. I can ask questions without looking like a cop. I can find out who carved those bodies up.”
The detective looked away.
“I’m all you got. You can roll the dice on me or you can watch this sick son-of-a-bitch sail away until the next victim shows up.”
Phillipson brought his gaze back to Legato, softened a little. “What would you need?”
Before answering, Legato nodded to the red button next to the door, the one labeled Audio. With a groan, Phillipson killed the audio.
Then Legato said, “Let me hold on to the photos. And the initial reports. I got a feeling about the knife wounds.”
“Are you serious? Has it been that long? You’ve forgotten policy around here?”
“Come on, like you’ve never fudged on that policy. Nobody has to know.”
Phillipson said nothing, but he didn’t even try to fake indifference.
“We can meet tomorrow and you can hand over copies of the photos. Along with the initial reports. Come on, give me what I need and give me two days, you’ll get your murderer.”
Phillipson stared for too long. Then he leaned over. “Tomorrow at nine in the morning, Bryant Park, next to the playground. Anybody asks, we bumped into each other on accident.”
Careful not to smile, Legato nodded.
“And anybody finds the photos or the reports on you, you lifted it from my car. Understood?”
And they were done. No handshake, no high-five. Just Legato being led to the front door and sent away with a grunted thank you.
At two minutes to nine, legato found the park empty. Taking a seat on the bench, he waited until he heard footsteps from behind.
Without addressing him, Phillipson took a seat on the bench’s other end. No words exchanged at first. Just two guys pretending to be gazing into the overcast skyline.
It seemed weird to Legato. Some Mission Impossible type shit.
“Just want you to know, Legato, whatever happens here, you’re still a piece of shit. But if this is all I got, it’s all I got.” He pulled a folder from his jacket pocket, sat it in the center of the bench.
Legato reached for it.
“Not yet,” Phillipson said. “Wait till I’m gone.”
“This is crazy.”
“No, this is what happens when you try to steal half a million dollars from the police department. You get a rep that could poison anybody who talks to you.” He sprang to his feet, started away but stopped himself. “I don’t hear from you in two days or if anything turns up on you that could land you in a cell, then to a cell you will go. No excuses.” He stepped into the distance, leaving Legato alone with his troubling thoughts.
Then Legato made the mistake of opening the folder. Out of context the jargon made little sense. He needed somebody to guide him through it, but without a medical examiner near, he’d have to get creative.
Bootsie’s was packed on Wednesday night. With so many fistfights to separate and drunken trysts to interrupt, Legato had almost enough on his mind to forget his mission. But as closing time approached, the sight of Ginger in the break room – nose buried in a book titled Medical Procedure – brought his troubles rushing back. Standing at the doorway with the folder tucked under his arm, he waited for the right moment to interrupt and ask for a favor. Finally he asked, “You catching up on old times?”
Ginger turned, her face colder than he’d ever seen it. “What?”
“The book. An old textbook from medical school?”
“No. Steamy romance. Nurse and doctor, fall in love, et cetera. Can I help you?”
He took a seat next to her. “How’d you know I needed help?”
“You just have that look. Like a john about to beg for a free handjob.”
Legato laughed, but Ginger didn’t. “What do you need, Legato?”
He tossed the folder in front of her. “I need help from somebody with a background in medicine. Could take a while to read through it. Two hours, maybe three.”
“Sure. Two-fifty an hour. Time’s up when I say it is.”
“I don’t think you understand what I’m asking for.”
“I don’t care what you’re asking for. You want a favor on my time, it costs you. My time is valuable – whatever it is you want.”
“I’m a little short on money right now –“
“And I’m a little short on generosity. Goodbye, Legato.”
He stood but stayed watching her for a while, her face beyond cold now, jaw tight. She sniffed.
“You okay, Ginger?”
“I’m fine!” she yelled. Then she sniffed again and stabbed away a tear.
Legato bowed to her face and asked, “Did you know the girl?”
She tossed the book against the wall and jumped to her feet. “Don’t call her ‘the girl.’ And don’t call her ‘the stabbing victim’! She had a name! She was Gayle Shiffman! She was a person, God damn it! She had kids and a cat and a favorite song! She was my friend!”
He reached for a hug.
“Don’t touch me!”
He said nothing as Ginger paced across the break room. “I’m scared Legato. My friends are dying and I’m trying to make a living in the world that killed them. I don’t do scared very well.”
“Maybe you should take some time off.”
“Yes, and also take time off from paying my pills. No, I have to deal with this. I’m seeing somebody tonight – a client – and I’m going to deal with this.”
“Look, maybe you could use a little… security tonight. I’m thinking maybe two-hundred and fifty dollar’s worth. Then we could go to a coffee shop and talk, look over some papers.”
Ginger’s face melted into something close to a smile. “Sure.”
Apart from the engine’s rattle, the ride in Legato’s Mazda was uneasily quiet. As the downtown hotel approached, he made a clumsy stab at small talk. “What’s your name, Ginger? Your real name.”
“My name is Ginger Alicia Jamison. I don’t do fake names, honey. Never needed to hide behind one.”
He patted her on the knee.
“But maybe I should think about it. Now that Cassandra’s gone. And Gayle’s gone. Maybe hiding isn’t such a bad idea.”
“You going to Gayle’s funeral?”
She shook her head, eyes tightly holding back tears. “A bunch of us called to ask about it and her family freaked out. They don’t want us there.”
“Prostitutes. So we said, fuck them. We’ll do our own thing. We’re having a thing Friday night, memorial service, I guess. Pizza, swapping war stories, a pajama party for hookers. Gayle would have loved it. Cassandra would have hated it. But my soul aches for them both right now.”
They’d reached the hotel parking lot. Legato’s Mazda slipped between minivans behind the nondescript brick building. “You sure you’re ready for this?” he asked.
“Honey, I’m never sure I’m ready for this. But that’s just part of the job description.”
He put a calming hand over hers. “Look, maybe I can scrape together enough cash to make up for what you’d miss if you cancelled tonight –“
Ginger swallowed hard and said. “No, we’re going to do this. And here’s how: You’re going to take me to the room, introduce yourself to the client, then disappear soon as we see this man is not dangerous. Easiest hour you’ve ever worked.”
They shared a nod, then stepped into the hotel lobby, hand-in-hand like prom dates. At the front desk, he noticed her hand still hadn’t stopped trembling.
Once checked in, they went to the room and waited. Only ten minutes late, a business-suited guy with a forgettable face introduced himself as ‘Jonathan,’ and asked immediately why Legato was there.
“He’s my muscle for the night, here to make sure you act like a gentleman.”
“I don’t recall that as part of the deal,” he answered. “But whatever.”
Then Ginger went to the bathroom and it was time for Legato to leave. But the guy seemed creepy, too unhappy about the unscheduled guest. And he didn’t like being under the hired muscle’s scrutiny. “Jesus, what am I a convict! I have to prove I’m not some kind of sicko before we can be alone!”
“It’s a dangerous job, buddy. She’ s just being safe.”
“She wants safe, she should have learned to wait tables! Swear to God, I should cancel out. How do I know you’re not here to assault me and take my money?”
“It’s the risk you take, pal. And cancelling is still an option.”
“If that’s the way you feel, I will!” He started to the door, but Legato pinned his thin body against the wall.
“Cancellation fee’s five-hundred bucks.”
“That’s right.” Legato snatched Jonathan’s wallet from his back pocket, took out his driver’s license. “A tip would be nice if you don’t want Mrs. Stansfield to know anything.”
Eyes now dancing with panic, Jonathan scooped out a wad of cash, tossed it away and scampered out the door.
Counting the money put a grin on Legato’s face, especially when he reached six hundred. Awfully generous of him.
Ginger emerged from the bathroom stunned. “The hell was all that yelling about? And where’s Jonathan?”
He tucked the stack of cash in her hand. “Jonathan got a little shy on us. But before leaving, he gave you a paid one-night vacation. I say we take it at the coffee shop in the lobby.”
“What did you do to him?”
“You coming with me or not?”
She followed him down the hallway, grabbing his hand before they reached the elevator. “Whatever it was you did to that guy, I kind of needed it tonight. Thank you.”
They started with small talk, Legato not wanting to leap directly into pictures of mutilated bodies and annoying questions about what the pictures meant. “Need any help for your memorial service?”
With a naughty grin, she said. “We could use a stripper.”
“My thong’s at the cleaners. Anything else?”
“Just having you there would be cool. It’s nice to know folks outside of the circle care.“ She scribbled the address on a napkin along with the time, 7PM. “And some food would be nice. Andy’s helping us out, but God knows what he could scrape together.”
“I’m sure it’ll be lovely.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’ll turn into an ugly catfight. But it’ll be something. My friends deserve something. Now you can stop pretending we’re here for a friendly chit-chat and give me that folder.”
He slid the folder across the table and waited, not sure what to expect.
After nearly an hour of silence, Ginger emerged from the stack of papers, saying, “Help me out, Legato. What is it you want from me?”
“I have no idea. I was hoping something would leap out at you and point a finger at somebody. But I guess not.”
“Reminds me of a standard anatomy class. Lacerations across the throat, the chest. Honey, if you think I’m going to be able to tell you something the police couldn’t, you’ve been watching too many cop shows. Nothing really stands out here. Just typical stab wounds. A little on the precise side, but nothing unusual.”
“Do you think it could have been done by a dull knife?”
“Absolutely not. Somebody had a sharp knife and a lot of skill.” But then Ginger stared at one of the photos a little too long and had to set it on the table.
“Kind of hard to look at, isn’t it?”
Ginger nodded, breathing in slowly, then out. “Two years of medical school makes it easier, but not when you’re looking at somebody whose kids you used to babysit.”
“I’m sorry I put you through this.”
“You didn’t put me through anything. The sicko with the knife owes the apology.”
Legato took a trip to the counter for a final coffee refill. He came back to find Ginger staring at the pictures again, holding them both close to her eyes. He asked her, “You ready to take off?”
She grunted in the affirmative without lifting her eyes away. “The cutting is weird, kind of similar. Like he was following a pattern or something. She laid the photos on the table and pointed to both chest lacerations. “Look how he stops right here – right at the lungs.”
“Why would he stop there?”
“No idea. He must have had a reason. Maybe he didn’t want to expose the lungs.”
“What would exposing the lungs do?”
“Ordinarily nothing. Unless, I don’t know, they were inflamed or something.”
“How do lungs get inflamed?”
“Lots of ways it can happen, honey. But poisoning comes to mind.” She shook her head like an art appraiser admiring a masterpiece. “The lack of splatter also seems weird. You’d expect more from a stabbing victim.”
Legato brought his eyes closer to the pictures, but without Ginger’s aid, there was nothing to see.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy’s covering something up. Like the knife wounds are meant to conceal something, maybe concealing the real cause of death.”
“Why would they want to conceal the real cause of death?”
She shrugged. “So they could set somebody up.” Then she sent him a worried mother’s glance. “Maybe you.”
He took the pictures back, loaded them into the folder. “Let me know if anything else comes to mind.”
“What are you going to do, Legato?”
“Not sure. Going to the cops with what I know would be a smart move. Problem is I don’t know much. And we’re running out of time.”
“Not that you asked my advice, but I’d stay away from this. If somebody is setting you up, the last thing you want is to be involved. If I were you I’d get out of Dodge, far away. Any more bodies surface and you’ve got the alibi of not being anywhere near the scene. Maybe come back later, after thing’s have cooled out.”
“And give this guy time to find another victim to slice apart?”
Ginger didn’t have an answer for him. And the words ‘another victim to slice apart’ made her shiver. “We ready to go?”
It was late when Legato dropped Ginger off, close to four am. But sleep was not an option with so many crazy thoughts echoing in his head. He wondered if it made sense to head to Tolliver’s home, no plan of action, nothing but a creepy notion eating at him since Ginger brought up the possibility of a set up. For all his frat-boy goofiness, Tolliver had the brains to pull something like that off. And maybe the incentive too. The knife, the finance with the mysterious history, the desire for secrecy. Shit was adding up too quickly for him to ignore. So he made the half-hour journey to Tolliver’s house in just under ten minutes.
He’d gambled that a party hound like Tolliver would still be up – if not necessarily sober – past four. Pulling up the house, he figured he’d guessed correctly. Lights still on, music loud as ever. But a knock at the door yielded nothing. He held still for a second, thinking he’d heard a rustle inside. So he stayed put until tentative footsteps made it to the door.
When it swung up open, a black dude was there – not Lavon this time. “The hell you need?” he asked, wiping white powder from his nose and angry about having his fun interrupted.
“I need Tolliver.”
“Gone to somewhere else.” He tried to slam the door shut, but couldn’t with Legato wedging his thigh inside it. Then he tossed the guy to the ground.
“We can make this easy or difficult,” Legato said, his knee on the guy’s neck. “It’s up to you.”
An elbow stabbed into Legato’s spine, sending him to the carpet, face down and winded. As the other guy sprang to his feet and held him down, Legato turned and saw Tolliver’s grimacing face bending to meet his. “I vote we make it easy, Legato. And here’s how: leave me alone.” He said to the other guy, “Jenk, grab that blade on the counter in case our friend isn’t in a cooperative mood today.”
Jenk held an old-school straight razor to Legato’s neck as Tolliver’s face reddened. “You really are getting to be a pain in the ass. I did not kill my fiancé! I’ve talked to the police and answered their questions.”
“You’ll forgive me but you’re not exactly acting like somebody with nothing to hide,” Legato said.
Tolliver wanted to pounce. He got into Legato’s face and growled,” I’m going to say this for the last time: I have nothing to hide! But if you keep sniffing around, you’re going to give me a reason to hide, my friend.” He nodded to Jenk, then the two men grabbed him, carried him to the back door. After fumbling with the handle, they opened it and carried him down the dark alley until they reached a secluded pocket.
Legato saw the hard concrete below him slamming into his face too quickly. Then everything went black and silent.
It was morning when Legato eyelids slowly fluttered open. Patiently waiting for the world to stop spinning, he climbed to his unsteady feet. In the distance an elderly lady snapped photos of him, then ducked into the bushes when he saw her.
The lady chirped into a cell phone. “He’s got thirty seconds before I call the police, Gladys!”
This might have been a good time to scamper away, but there was nowhere to run – and too many questions to be answered. Instead Legato figured he could use the lady to learn more about her misbehaving neighbor. He whipped out his cell phone, circled around her garbage can and spoke in a commanding bravado. “Yes, we’ve got plenty of violations here, guys – I see several instances of seven-thirty-eight and a textbook case of nine-nineteen.”
In seconds the lady emerged from the bushes, taking cautious steps to the fence, making sure her cloth robe was fully fastened. “Is there a problem here, sir?”
“Is there ever! I see multiple violations of various trash codes, including three-seventeen, zero-eight eleven and, wait is that a plastic bag in an aluminum can – dear God! I might have to call in the van for this one.” Cell phone cupped to his ear, he said, “Yes, Chuck? We got a huge one here…”
“Pardon me, sir, but you don’t look like a policeman to me.”
“Lady, those of us on the garbage squad dress this way to keep a low profile and I’m afraid being a smart aleck is not going to get you much sympathy from the boys in the van –“
She gasped. “I’m so sorry! I really don’t understand why I’m in trouble when my trash looks like all the others in the neighborhood.”
“Oh, don’t you worry, we’ll be back for others on this block too – especially our friends in twenty-four-seventeen over there.” He nodded toward Tolliver’s house.
A light in the lady’s eyes snapped on, telling Legato he’d stumbled across the neighborhood busy-body.
“Oh, I could tell you some stories about what goes on there!” she said.
He smiled like a jungle cat lead to his prey. “We’ve been after that fellow for a while. Any info you have on twenty-four-seventeen would be most appreciated, ma’am.”
“Really? My name’s Lillian. Would you like to come in for a while?”
Once inside Lillian’s warmly adorned home, Legato took a seat, nursing a sore back and trying to blink away the his fuzzy vision.
“I was just about to have some tea and roasted salmon,” she said.
“Sound wonderful. I should warn you that we’ll have to get very thorough, detailing everything you know about the goings-on in that yard and house. It could take a while. Are you comfortable with that, ma’am?”
With a grin she grabbed a thick scrapbook from her pantry and placed it on the breakfast table. “That salmon will take about an hour. By then we’ll be ready for book two.”
Lillian spent an hour displaying numerous photographs taken of Tolliver’s trash and yard, while providing uninterrupted commentary. To one picture, she added, “This was a night he and his friends got really loud – Halloween of a few years ago. I don’t know exactly what was happening in there, but I could smell some kind of smoke and I could tell it wasn’t a bonfire if you know what I mean.” To another she said, “These fellas he has in there usually come and go. The whole thing seems a little shady to me.” A few glimpses inside his home could also be spotted. But Legato didn’t learn much he didn’t already know.
One recurring image was a blue two-door Buick that looked familiar. Legato asked, “Does this car belong to one of the guys who come and go?”
“Oh, no! That belongs to a nice lady. She’s very understanding and willing to help clean up any troubles that take place there – especially when the police get called.”
Legato’s head tilted. Something sounded odd. “What lady?”
“Well, I never did catch her name. But every time I’ve had a complaint about the noise at twenty-five-seventeen, she’d be right over, offering to talk to the man who lives there. She even offered me some money in case I had any troubles as a result of the loud noise or anything. She’s a real sweetheart – well, she was anyway. She hasn’t been around much for the last week or so”
“And you don’t know who this woman was?”
“I suppose she was employed by him in some capacity. I’d see her drive up some young girls to his house and drop them out. They looked so pretty, all dressed up nice and fancy.”
He stared at the photo longer, hoping the image would jar something loose. But it remained stubbornly lodged. “Lillian, how did you used to contact this nice lady if you ever had a problem with things that happened.”
Lillian dug through a pile of books, finally coming across an address book and fingering through it. “Let’s see here… it was somewhere in here…”
Legato scanned through the names. When he saw Corrine Strickland, several pieces slipped into place. But he still needed to figure some things out. So he said, “Lillian, I’m afraid this lady must be contacted. You see, by offering you a cash inducement, she was interfering with official Garbage Patrol business.”
“That’s right. And for a variety of reasons too complicated to share, we will now have to run a sting operation on her – with assistance from you.”
“Ooh, sounds exciting!”
“Lillian, this is not some Hollywood movie. It’s a serious Garbage Patrol matter.” He leaned in closer and whispered. “What I need from you is to call Mrs. Strickland, tell you her need to see her about something very important. Can you do this?”
“I’ll do the best I can.”
“That’s all we can ask. We need you to give her call and ask her over here sometime in the next few hours. Tell her it is regarding her behavior in the vicinity of twenty-five-seventeen Chandelier lane.” He gave Lillian’s arm a gentle stroke to help soothe her nerves. Then came the call.
“Yes, Mrs. Strickland. I’m Lillian, we’ve had a little contact in the past… yes, that’s right. And calling because there’s a little thing we need to clear up about some of the things you’ve been involved with around the neighborhood and –“
From the phone’s other end, Legato could hear a loud demand for information.
“No,” Lillian went on. “I haven’t been in touch with the police, but –“ She pulled the phone away, stunned by the silence on the other end. “She said she’d be right over.”
Together they waited ten minutes. For Legato it was tense, the clock loudly ticking out reminders that his mission was far from complete. For Lillian it was an adventure she couldn’t wait to send to the rumor mill.
A knock at the door got their attention. Lillian left the kitchen to answer it and brought Corrine right in. She stopped when she saw Legato, eyebrows suddenly up and head tilted. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“Thank you, Lillian,” he said. “I’ll take it from here.”
Lillian ducked away and Legato said to Corrine, “I’m the man who attempted to deliver your daughter’s stuff.”
She said nothing, but Legato watched as her gaze raced to the floor.
“I understand you’ve made a few visits to the neighborhood.”
“Is it unusual for a mother to visit her daughter’s future husband?”
“And I understand you’ve escorted a few friends over.”
“I can’t believe I’m discussing this with… I’m sorry, who are you exactly?”
“Mrs. Strickland, if you think this conversation is awkward, perhaps you’d like to try it in an interrogation room – hooked up to a polygraph machine. All I want is to find your daughter’s killer. Because there’s a reason to believe he’s been involved in at least one other murder.”
“You suspect Tolliver?”
“I suspect somebody in the world Tolliver helped create. But first, I need you to come clean. Did you play a role in creating that world?”
She paced like a caged leopard. Then she stopped, faced him and just said it. “I never wanted her involved. I knew what he did for a living, but I wanted her out of it!”
“What did he do for a living?”
“He… sold women. He was a pimp.” A few tears fell as she fumbled for the rest of the words. “And I helped him. I brought women in and I paid for things he needed taken care of. We both did, Cassandra’s father and I. We helped kill her.”
He took her trembling hand. “No you didn’t. I’m going to find out who did.”
“I really need you to understand how desperate we were. We needed money and this charming young man comes into my daughter’s life, promising he’ll make her a star. We never trusted him, not for a second. It always seemed to me he was hiding something, some plan for her, something. We never knew what it was, but there was a demon in his closet.
“But she loved him anyway. I swear to God, she did. He didn’t love her back, but that didn’t stop her. Nothing could stop her. Cassandra was like that. Head strong, stubborn.
“She did what she wanted to do.”
“Yes, she did. And we agreed to help. First we gave this man of dubious character our daughter’s hand in marriage. Then we helped fund his business. And we’ll hate ourselves forever for it.”
“I need you to come to the police with me.”
“No! Nobody can know about what happened!”
She pulled away and raced to the door. “You tell anybody what I’ve shared with you and I’ll deny it!” Then she was gone.
Legato sat there, thinking of sending a fist through the loudly ticking clock. With no moves left to make he raced from Lillian’s home. Tolliver’s house seemed a dead end – no car out front, no noise leaking into the yard, so he hobbled back to his car, headed home, craving a short nap before making another visit to twenty-four-seventeen.
But the nap didn’t help much and a trip to the back steps only gave him a new spot to pace. So he kept pacing as nighttime approached. Then came a nagging ring of his cell phone.
“Yeah?” he answered.
“Jake?” Cicely asked. “Why are you not… here?”
Shit. He’d ditched worked without knowing it. But at least it wasn’t Phillipson with more bad news. Nose clamped into fake congestion, he said, “Cicely, I’m totally sorry. There’s something crappy going around. Flu bug, cold, something. I’m totally sorry.”
“That’s… not acceptable, Jake. We really need to you give us a call ahead of time if you’re going to miss a day.”
But Legato’s attention had drifted away. Something in the distant weeds caught his eye. Flies gathered around a crimson-streaked slab of something.
He crept closer and saw a body tucked between plastic garbage bags. The cell phone fell from his hand, landing with a dull thud that startled him. He crouched to see the body. It felt like the final verse in a song he’d gotten sick of hearing. Dead body, carved up neck and chest, eyes staring at nothing, body draped in stripper gear. Legato didn’t move until he heard Cicely’s muffled voice. “Jake, are you there? Jake? Jake!” He dug the phone from the weeds and said. “I’m sorry, Cicely. We’ll talk later.”
He clicked the conversation dead and started dialing phillipson, struggling to focus on the number with so many thoughts blurring in his head. Then a scrap of paper under the victim’s left arm caught his attention. Careful not to touch it, he leaned over and gave it a read.
Bethany, Bethany, Bethany. Looks like tonight is not your lucky night, sweetheart. You didn’t ask for this and you’ve done nothing to deserve it – apart from being beautiful. But the Siren craves what she craves. And when she calls me late at night, demanding to be fed the bodies of beautiful ladies in need of absolution, I must answer.
I know a little about absolution. I’ve been a naughty boy myself. I’ve been a trusted figure who’s abused that trust to line my pockets. I’ve been desperate, frenzied, incomplete. I need this. And so do you.
A shudder came through his limbs. It wasn’t just the ghastly sight of the body. Or even the note’s menacing tone. It was that this note was different. References to the siren remained and clearly these words came from the same troubled mind. But somewhere between notes two and three a twist had been added. And Legato had become that twist. He was being targeted. And any reader of the note would have to wonder if his luck could really be that bad: first dead body at his new workplace, second in an alley nearby, and third in the backyard of his apartment.
A shout came from his cell phone. “This is Phillipson!”
Legato didn’t move until the building’s back door creaked open. Two soft footsteps later, he turned. A thin elderly lady stood there – Julie from down the hallway. She gawked the body, saying nothing.
“This is Phillipson!” the detective repeated, impatient and growing worried.
Legato didn’t wait for a third reply. He tucked the phone into his pocket and did the same with the note, knowing that Phillipson’s involvement at this stage would be bad news for everybody except the murderer.
Julie raced into the building, probably contacting somebody who could only complicate matters. And Legato ducked around the building and got to his car en route to the only place that could make sense of this.
Tolliver’s lights were on as Legato sprinted out of his car. The front door would be a waste of time – his last trip there not being much fun. Music blasted from a side window, not as loud this time, but very likely an indication that he’d have his questions answered soon.
An open window on the second floor was his only shot at a discreet entrance. He climbed to the first floor window, then stretched for the second, coming up inches short. A dizzying glance to the ground didn’t help and the sirens in the distance only added to his heart’s thunderous pound. He jumped for it, grabbing the window sill and slowly pulling himself just high enough to gaze inside. The light was off, but a moving shadow in the hallway told him the room could be a safe place – provided he could land quietly.
With a delicate tuck and roll, he got himself into the room with little noise. Then he stood and ducked behind a curtain in case the figure in the hallway spotted him.
Legato waited a few tense minutes for the figure to step down the hallway and into another room. With his eyes adjusted to the dark, he vaguely recognized the room as the bedroom he’d been taken to before – the place with the closet full of weapons. An idea intruded. He tiptoed into the closet.
Cautiously opening the door and stabbing inside it with hands lit only by a sliver of moonlight, he felt a giant bag and dug into it. He stifled a scream as a sharp blade met his middle finger. But he dug into the bag a second time, tapping around until he found something that felt like a trigger. After carefully pulling the gun out he held it close to his face, trying to examine it. He saw and felt rust along the gun’s barrel – bad sign. An antique wouldn’t be much help. Reaching into the bag a third time, he tapped around for something that felt fairly smooth, then slowly withdrew it. Without being able to see much, he used his fingers to check if it was loaded and moving somewhat smoothly. Satisfied that the gun could serve its purpose if needed, he tucked it into a pocket, then tiptoed out of the room.
Legato got halfway down the hallway before being caught off-guard by laughter. And something about his laughter differed from the drug-fuelled chuckles he’d heard before from Tolliver and his friends. This laughter was warmer, more playful, more intimate. This laughter – two baritones – came from lovers. Maybe Jenk, maybe Lavon, didn’t matter. He’d found the ‘demon in the closet’ that eluded Corrine.
As the laughter threaded into breathy moans, Legato understood much more: Tolliver’s obsession with privacy made more sense, as did his unconventional relationship with Cassandra. As Corrine noted, he didn’t love her. He couldn’t.
Legato reflected on the note attached to the body – a note that now made little sense coming from Tolliver. And not only because a preoccupation with female strippers suddenly seemed unlikely. The note had to come from somebody familiar with Legato’s past. Adding things up quickly, he scampered back to the window he’d come out of and quietly scaled back down it. Running to his car, he dialed Phillipson again, preparing to explain why Andy was the man they should have been after.
“Phillipson,” he answered.
“It’s Legato, I’ve got your killer, Phillipson. Get over to Andy’s!”
“It’s too late, Stallion, we’re onto your game.”
“I’m not playing a game. I’m helping you just like a agreed to!”
“We stopped at Toliver’s house and guess what we found? Your fingerprints all over Cassandra’s clothes. Pretty odd for two people who’ve never met, right Legato?”
“Look, I can explain all of this!”
“You’ve done enough explaining. Anything else you have to say will be coming from a jail cell.”
The phone went dead and Legato sent the gas pedal to the floor. If he couldn’t get the cops to pick up Andy, he’d get them there another way.
A clock atop a rapidly passing building told him it was three minutes before seven. Just about time for Ginger and her friends’ memorial service – refreshments supplied by Andy.
As the suburbs blurred past, he scooped out his cell phone, in hopes of reaching Ginger. But he didn’t have Ginger’s number. So he dialed Andy, got him quickly.
Hiding the panic in his voice, Legato said, “Hey Andy! You at the memorial party for the girls right now?”
“Um… how’d you know about that?”
“Oh, you know how word gets around with the girls. Look, Ginger said you might bring some refreshments…”
“Uh… yeah, I am. I sort of can’t talk right now. I’m on my way over, but I’ll be there in about ten minutes –“
“Great, I’ll see you there, buddy!”
He hung up, still needing the address and wishing he had more than ten minutes to get there. The address he took care of by digging the tattered napkin from his wallet, not easy to do at ninety miles per hour. Trading glances between the road and the address scribbled on the napkin, he kept weaving through traffic, hoping the distant siren behind him was for somebody else.
But it wasn’t. It kept roaring in pursuit as he sped toward the address: 7714 Dupont Avenue. As the suburbs whizzed behind him, weaving through traffic got harder and harder. He was at 83rd and Dupont, then 82nd, but a cement truck ahead promised a dead end, no way to avoid hitting it. And turning back would mean delivering himself to the cops.
A sliver of space between the truck and a stop sign grew skinnier as the truck backed up. Twenty feet became ten as Legato sped toward it.
He tried to steer through it, but the space was too tight and he slammed the driver’s side hard against the truck’s rear, sending his tiny Mazda spinning into an empty parking lot.
Dizzy and disheveled, he pulled himself from the smashed-up car, sirens approaching from behind, but he had to keep going, had to get there before Andy did.
He ducked behind a dumpster as the cops stopped at the wrecked Mazda. They got out, guns drawn, and eyes focused on the car’s insides, giving him just enough time to scamper away.
He looked up to see 81st street, then got to 80th, his legs weary, his breath labored. At 79th street he heard the sirens start up again and it didn’t take long for them to catch up. But he’d gotten to 78th, then limped inside the building once they had drawn their guns.
The girls were there, stunned by the noise and cop’s convention outside. Legato raced down the hallway and into a giant rec room, finding a plate of sandwiches, a bunch of cups containing a light blue substance. But no Andy. “Ladies, don’t drink or eat anything!”
Ginger entered the room. “The hell’s going on?”
“Where’s Andy?” Legato demanded.
“I don’t know, getting something from his car, I guess.” she answered.
“Where is his car?”
Ginger lifted a finger to the parking lot – visible through the open back door. But before he could run through it, six cops were there, guns out. “Everybody get down and show me your hands!” one of them screamed.
Legato obeyed, but spotted a familiar Silhouette outside. Andy ducked away to his car. His getting away – even for only a few hours – would complicate things. It could have made Legato’s story harder to sell, and worse yet, it could have given Andy enough time to take more grim orders from the siren.
As Andy’s car belched into motion, Legato waited for the right moment to squirt free. The cops were checking the girls one-by-one and with just the right timing, he could leap to his feet and race out of the door…
Scrambling out to the parking lot, Legato ignored the officers yelling, “Sir, I need you to get down!” He raced to Andy’s car as it started away, drew his gun, ignoring more shouted commands from the cops. He fired, hitting the car’s rear tires. It spun into a bus, stranding Andy in the middle of the street. He emerged, hands up, stunned. The cops stared at them both, guns on Legato, not sure what to make of the mess.
But Legato only said. “Here’s your man. Check out the sandwiches, the drinks, the fingerprints on the bodies. You’ve got your murderer right here.”
He spent fifteen tense minutes in handcuffs. Then Phillipson got there, wearing an embarrassed grin that told Legato everything he needed to know. “Let him go,” the detective told the shocked officers. And Andy was escorted to the squad car, eyes wordlessly begging for an old friend’s help.
From Phillipson, Legato got a handshake and nothing more. As the squad cars floated into the night, Ginger emerged, shaken but finally breathing again. “You want to explain what just happened?”
“Got a few hours?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m seeing a client tonight.”
“We’ll talk again some other time. Maybe.”
She gave his shoulder a gentle rub, then mouthed the words thank you before backpedalling to her car. And Legato just stood there trying not to watch her leave.
The misadventures with his Mazda meant taking a bus home, giving him enough time to wonder how Andy put everything together. Legato concluded that he didn’t. He had help.
Somebody needed to set things up, to rope Legato into the giant mess, to haul the body to his apartment.
He needed somebody who could slip under the world’s radar. Somebody to plan the details without attracting attention. Somebody like the girl every guy sat next to in high school but never noticed.
Standing at the front steps of his apartment building, Legato picked up his cell phone and dialed.
She answered after half a ring. “It’s too late,” Cicely said. “I’m gone.”
“They’ll get you eventually. You know that, don’t you?”
“Everybody gets gotten eventually, don’t they? The trick is to have your fun before they haul you away.”
“Which part was the most fun for you, Cicely? Writing the notes? Hauling that body to my apartment building? Providing an alibi for Andy’s whereabouts? Getting me to put my fingerprints on Cassandra’s clothes? Or just planning out the murders?”
“I didn’t plan anything! Andy was who he was before I got there. But he kept telling me these fantasies of what he wanted to do, what he would do if I wanted him to. I guess I was flattered. Somebody would do that for me? So I… dared him. I told him I’d help him, keep him from getting caught. I’d find somebody else to take the fall. All I needed was the perfect fall guy with a shaky past.”
“And that’s when Andy told you about me.”
“Congratulations. You got somebody to notice you and all it took was three innocent lives.”
“That blood is on Andy’s hands – not mine! I didn’t play a role in the actual… you know, killings.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. He may have done the killing, but you made the killer. Before you, he was just a creep with some weird fantasies. You molded him, gave him the inspiration to do more. He was your creation, wasn’t he?”
She paused, then said, “I guess he was, wasn’t he?” Like a revelation. Legato could almost hear the prideful grin from the other line.
“So now what? Now your creation’s gone, locked away for life, no chance of parole.”
“Guess I’ll just have to go create another one then, won’t I?”
Then Legato heard nothing.
Before calling the station, he had himself a good laugh at Andy’s expense. Poor bastard was a lump of clay in her hands, just waiting to be molded into something sinister. All she needed from him was to do the killings and plant the knife, but the idiot even botched that, forgetting to sharpen it and letting it get found by the wrong guy.
Then Legato laughed at himself for a while, reflecting on his helper’s disguise. Cicely Russo? Bullshit. That girl was no Italian – no Greek either. But she wanted to be. Greek like the sirens, those mythological creatures that lured men out to their demise in the sea.
Without much information to pass on, the call didn’t take long. The guy he talked to assured him they’d nail her before she could cause more mischief, but he didn’t sound convinced of it himself. Too many places to run to with the head start she’d gotten.
For the moment it seemed like a good time to get some sleep, but Legato just couldn’t with the night this quiet.
Want more of Jake Legato? Check out this free preview of the next installment in the Jake Legato PI Series The Devil’s Cheap Disguise!
Nobody recognized the lady in the glasses. But they paid her no mind as she slipped into the clinic, past the security desk and through the hallway. Probably visiting somebody, they all must have figured. Or maybe she worked there or something. Whatever. They didn’t really see her, didn’t notice that mischievous glow in her eyes. The one that would have alerted them to the coming danger.
She crept through the hallways, marveling at the cleanliness. Bright carpets, desks you could eat off of. Could this really be a drug rehab clinic? A place for monsters addicted to meth or heroin? A place where dangerous men and women went when prison couldn’t help them.
The thought warmed her face with a naughty librarian’s sneer. She imagined the fun she could create with some strung-out druggie who’d do anything to please a pretty girl from the Midwest. An old-fashioned girl who your mother would love because she couldn’t see past that wholesome grin.
She poked her head inside a room, spotting rows of people – normal looking people – reciting some tedious rehab mantra like obedient office workers. But who knew what secrets they buried under those compliant faces?
After a glance at her watch, she ducked back into the hallway. There’d be plenty of time to try a new game with a new friend. But for now it was time to focus on the game she’d already set in motion. She could see Legato’s van in the parking lot. Maybe he’d get roped into the homicidal madness or maybe he wouldn’t.
Either way, this was going to be fun.
As the lady walked past the hallway and to the cafeteria a guard called from behind. “Excuse me? Lady?”
But she was gone by then, floating away like a vengeful memory, the seeds of joyful destruction already planted.
Jake Legato was a detective for the Minneapolis Police department. But a really bad decision turned him into an ex-detective. Now he's a bouncer at a seedy bar in a dangerous neighborhood. And when a serial killer targets several strippers for a series of gruesome murders, he's forced to put his detective hat back on -- because now he's the suspect. The race is on to find the killer before he strikes again while the police scramble for clues, convinced that this ex-detective with a shady past has found a grisly new hobby.