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Authors: Joan Boswell

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BOOK: Cut to the Bone
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THREE

“Hello. Anybody home?” Hollis called after she opened the door.

No answer. Although easy listening music flooded the apartment, it felt empty.

“Come in with me,” Ginny said.

Hollis felt sorry for Ginny and agreed. With Ginny, still clutching the grocery bag, following her like a puppy on a leash, Hollis flicked on the lights in the hall and then in the living room. Two black leather sofas with contrasting red suede cushions aligned at either end faced each other across a gleaming brass-and-glass coffee table. Black velvet drapes were drawn across the window and a white floktari carpet completed the décor, which looked as if it had just been delivered from Leon's furniture store. When Hollis turned on the kitchen pot lights, they reflected from a black granite countertop and highlighted stainless steel appliances. Only a coffee maker marred the pristine counter. It could have been an advertisement from Home Depot or IKEA. Perfectly appointed, sparkling clean, and empty.

“Everything is very new,” Hollis said.

“It is. Fatima thought it needed new furniture.”

“Fatima?”

“Yes. I rent the apartment from Fatima Nesrallah. You know that she owns all the apartments on the fifth, don't you?”

“Actually, I didn't. The fees go to the accountant.”

Hollis knew Fatima and wouldn't have pegged her as an entrepreneur. People constantly surprised her.

“Why does it feel spooky?” Ginny whispered.

Hollis also lowered her voice as they moved down the hall to the two bedrooms. “Maybe because you left all the curtains and blinds shut,” she said as she pushed a door open.

“This is the master bedroom,” Ginny said.

An unmade king-size bed with a quilted red satin duvet pulled partly back, piles of silk and velvet pillows tossed on the white rug, along with discarded clothing reflected in the ceiling's mirrors.

Mirrors on the ceiling — she wondered if they featured in all the fifth floor apartments. She associated them with honeymoon hotels and bordellos.

Hollis backed out of the room, colliding with an anxious Ginny. “One to go,” Hollis said.

Ginny hung on to the shopping bag as if it was a life raft. “I'm afraid,” she whispered.

“I think it's contagious,” Hollis confessed as she slowly turned the knob and gently pushed the second bedroom's door open.

Blood, urine, and feces — the smell assaulted them.

“Oh my god,” Ginny whispered.

Sabrina lay on her back, her throat gaping. Blackened blood stained flowered white sheets, the bedside table, the adjacent wall, and her neatly folded clothes on a chair close to the bed. Blood had spattered her pink coat. Her blood-soaked Snoopy pyjamas added an extra element of pathos to the scene.

“Sabrina …” Ginny exhaled the word.

Hollis stepped into the room and touched Sabrina's cold hand.

“She's dead, isn't she?” Ginny said.

“She is. We mustn't touch anything.” Hollis breathed shallowly and stepped back. This wasn't the first time she'd seen a murder victim, but that didn't make it easier. She put her hand on Ginny's arm and turned them both toward the door. “Give me your cell phone to call the police.”

Ginny placed the groceries on the floor before she dug into her shoulder bag and handed over a pink phone. Watching Hollis, she moaned, “Oh my god. She was nice. Why would anyone kill her?”

“The police will find her killer.”

“The police won't give a fuck,” Ginny said harshly.

“What?” Hollis stepped back in surprise.

“Get real. She was a call girl. Cops don't care about women like us. We're throwaways.” Ginny bent to retrieve the groceries.

Call girls.

Hollis had had no idea. Fatima Nesrallah must be running an escort service. She had noticed that the women who lived on the fifth were an attractive lot, but she'd never suspected what trade they were practising.

Did the police consider sex trade workers throwaways? Hollis didn't want to believe it but suspected it was true.

“Bring the groceries with you,” Hollis said before she punched in 911.

“This is Hollis Grant, superintendent of the Strathmore Apartments, 68 Delisle Street. A young woman,” she paused. Sabrina's last name had disappeared from her mind.

“Yes,” the male voice on the line prompted.

“A young woman has been murdered.”

“Are you in danger?”

“No. She appears to have been dead for some time.”

Ginny and Hollis rode the elevator in a deep silence, punctuated by Ginny's occasional sniffle. In Hollis's office Ginny collapsed on one of the two armless leather upholstered visitor's chairs, covered her face with her hands, and cried.

“Ginny, the fire, police, ambulance, the whole response team will arrive in minutes. They'll talk to us after they've been upstairs. We've suffered a shock. My knees feel shaky and …”

Ginny dropped her hands and raised her head. “Me too. I'm all wobbly.”

“No time for hot, sweet tea but I have orange juice and I'll get us both a glass. The sugar will help.”

When the approaching siren screams shattered the morning calm, they gulped the juice and went to meet the police.

FOUR

Assigned the task in late April, Rhona and Ian had laboured for more than a week examining files relating to the murder or disappearance of Aboriginal women. Rhona feared they'd find evidence of negligence but none surfaced. Now, on a cool May morning the two detectives faced each another in the homicide office, which hummed with activity.

“Enough of this,” Ian said, holding up their summation. “We're finished.”

Rhona tapped her pen on the desk and surveyed the office. “God knows everyone is busy. We need to do our bit and work on an active case.” Her phone buzzed. “Right. Ian's here. We'll be right in,” she said.

Ian raised an eyebrow.

“Looks like I got my wish. Frank has a case for us. Bring the report.”

When they entered his office, Frank was leaning back with his feet propped on his desk's open bottom drawer.

“Sit down,” he said, waving a hand at the two steel- and blue-plastic chairs parked in front of him like recalcitrant students appearing before the principal.

He lowered his feet before leaning forward. “So what did you discover?” he asked.

Ian handed him the document and summarized their findings.

A slight smile cracked Frank's lips. “Good practice for your new assignment,” he said.

Good practice — what did that mean?

“In the last twenty-four hours a perp slit a call girl's throat. It's your case. Not an Aboriginal, but given the fuss about sex trade workers and the accusations that the police don't do enough …” He waved the report. “Your research may come in handy. Take a car from the pool and get over to 68 Delisle Street. The superintendent, Hollis Grant, will wait for you in her office. She found the body.”

“Did you say Hollis Grant?” Rhona said. A feeling of déjà vu swept over her. Not again. It couldn't be Hollis Grant?

“Should I spell it? H-o-l-l-i-s G-r-a-n-t, do you know her?”

“Yes, and so do you. She was involved in the Danson Lafleur case last October.”

“The name didn't register. Now that you mention it, I do remember. Didn't she provide useful information?”

“She meddled, but, yes, you're right, she helped.”

“Well, maybe she'll do it again,” the chief said.

Rhona hoped Hollis would not play
any
part in the investigation.

“We don't want the mayor, the papers, or any of the city's do-gooders making an issue of the case. Do I make myself clear?” Frank said.

“Perfectly. We're on our way,” Rhona said.

Outside the chief's office, Ian muttered, “If I remember correctly, she was a pain in the ass.”

“She was, but without her leads the case could have turned out much worse. She's a loose cannon and I hope her only involvement is finding the victim,” Rhona said.

At 68 Delisle, Hollis had left Ginny in her office and dealt with the initial onslaught of emergency responders arriving in the lobby. The police, once they knew what had happened, requested that residents arriving or leaving wait there for an interview. The lobby rapidly filled with tenants, along with the crew working on the exterior repairs to the balconies, who used the opportunity to flop on the grey marble floor and chow down on whatever food remained in their lunch buckets.

Hollis circled the area and briefly spoke to those she knew before nipping into her apartment, leashing Barlow and returning to the office with the puppy. She dug out the dog biscuits she kept in her desk drawer.

“Help me practice his dog training homework?” she said to Ginny, who was huddled on the visitor's chair gripping her second glass of orange juice and staring into space.

Ginny frowned. “How can you talk about dog training when Sabrina's been murdered?” she asked. “All I can think about is what we saw up there.”

“Me too, but practising the exercises with Barlow will distract us,” Hollis said.

Hearing his name, Barlow squeezed close to Hollis, waiting for her to scratch his bony back. Instead, she stood and fished a treat from her pocket, which energized the dog and focused his attention. Barlow performed
sit
and
down
with no problems, but when Hollis ordered him down and then told him to stay, he refused to co-operate, repeatedly leaping to his feet and lunging for the treat.

Hollis, for the fifth time, held her hand aloft and again commanded the dog to stay. With eyes locked on the puppy, she backed toward the door. A voice behind her said. “A puppy and a new job as apartment super. You've been busy since I saw you last.”

It couldn't be. Hollis dropped her hand and turned. Barlow, tail wagging like a metronome on speed, leapt toward Rhona Simpson, who stepped back and crashed into Ian.

“Rhona Simpson. I can't believe it,” Hollis said. She grabbed the puppy's blue collar with her left hand and held out her right to Rhona.

Rhona, her equilibrium restored, shook the proffered hand. “You remember my partner, Detective Gilchrist?”

Hollis acknowledged Ian and waved her free hand toward Ginny. “This is Ginny Wuttenee. Sabrina Trepanier was sleeping in her spare room when she was murdered.”

“What a shock you've had,” Rhona said to Ginny.

Ginny, wide-eyed, said nothing.

“There's a crowd up there already,” Hollis said.

“And the coroner is on his way along with the rest of our team. Tell me about the victim.”

“Let me put this monster back in my apartment. It's right across the hall.”

With the reluctant puppy stuffed away, Hollis moved to the cabinet and removed Fatima Nesrallah's file.

“The murdered woman, Sabrina Trepanier, was staying in Ginny's apartment, 504, while her own living room was painted. Sabrina was allergic to paint. All the apartments on the fifth are owned by one woman. I don't have individual renters' files.” She passed Fatima's file to Rhona.

Rhona glanced at it. “She lists her occupation as personal assistant but doesn't mention a company.”

“Fatima tells everyone to put that down on their income tax forms,” Ginny said. “Personal assistant is a joke. We're escorts.”

“I suppose personal assistant isn't exactly a lie, it's another way to describe what you do,” Rhona said. “Were you good friends with Ms. Trepanier?”

The question upset Ginny, whose chin quivered before she burst into tears. Through her sobs she said, “Yes. She was so nice. Why would anyone do this?”

“That's what we'll find out. Hollis, did you know the victim? Why were you in her apartment?”

“When Ginny woke she popped over to Bruno's to buy food and didn't take her key, because she thought Sabrina would be up and would let her in when she returned. When she couldn't get her on the phone, she worried that something had happened and asked me to open the door.”

“Did you know the dead girl?” Rhona asked.

“I've only worked here a couple of months. The job keeps me busy but I did chat with her on several occasions, never about anything important. The dogs attracted her. In fact, one day when she patted MacTee, she cried and told me how much she missed her family's Golden.”

Rhona made a move toward the door. “I'll be back later to talk to you about the other tenants.”

Hollis glanced at the clock. “At three thirty I pick up my foster child at her school.”

“Foster child?” Rhona's eyebrows skyrocketed. “Have you had a mid-life crisis? You've changed everything.”

Hollis nodded. “Not everything. I'm painting. That's why I took this job — to give me time to paint and have an apartment with room for Jay and the dogs.”

“One more question. Did the victim seem afraid? Did she ever talk to you about anything that was bothering her?” Rhona addressed the question to both Ginny and Hollis.

“Not to me,” Hollis said and looked at Ginny.

Ginny shook her head.

Rhona glanced at the bank of security monitors. “The info from those should help. We'll take all the stored info. We'll talk more later.”

Hollis was left wondering how to tell Jay and her friend, Crystal, about the murder without terrifying them.

FIVE

Rhona and Ian divided responsibilities and assigned officers to control the waiting group in the lobby until they could interview them.

As they contemplated the crowd, the forensics team and the coroner, a tall, thin black man, arrived. The two detectives accompanied them to the murder scene, where all donned protective footwear and gloves.

Inside the small, bloody bedroom, Rhona looked at the figure on the bed and sighed. Death was never easy to contemplate and this murder had been a gruesome one. It was hard to know for sure, but the woman appeared to have been young and beautiful. What a waste.

The coroner made his preliminary exam before the body was removed to the morgue.

“What can you tell us?” Ian said.

The man shrugged. “Because the window was open and the room was cool, I'd estimate she was murdered sometime after midnight. As we see, the assailant slashed her throat with what must have been considerable force and a sharp knife. She was lying on her back. Because of her position I'd say the attacker stood on the left side of the bed and used his right hand or both hands. She doesn't appear to have resisted nor does she seem to have been raped. I believe she died almost instantly. I'll tell you more after the autopsy.”

“Thanks. Now we'll ask the residents where they were and what they were doing last night,” Rhona said.

“Most will say they lived alone, were in bed, and had no one to vouch for them,” Ian grumbled.

“Too true. I'll talk to the women on this floor. Ian, get Ms. Grant to provide you with a copy of the building's plans and a list of the residents. We will also need former tenants' names, ones who had lived in the building as long as Ms. Trepanier. As Ms. Grant hasn't worked here for long, when we interview those in the lobby we'll make sure to note their apartment's location and the length of time that they've lived here.”

Upstairs, the other women living on the fifth were at home. Rhona had sent a uniform along to ask each to remain inside and wait for the interview. She began with the tenants living adjacent to Ginny.

The door directly across the hall opened as she raised her hand to press the buzzer. A quick glimpse at the door revealed a peephole — a good idea for any door and not one that Rhona had in her own building.

“Come in.” A plump woman with enormous black eyes heavily fringed with what had to be false eyelashes stepped back to allow Rhona inside.

The woman was shorter than Rhona. Addicted to high-heeled cowboy boots to increase her height, Rhona always measured herself against others. She'd done it since childhood. As a police officer she'd found it helpful because it allowed her to position herself so that interviewees or perps seldom towered over her. She always insisted tall interviewees sit down, and she herself never chose low, squashy chairs or sofas.

“Fatima Nesrallah,” the woman said, extending a tiny, ring-encrusted hand with scarlet fingernails topped with gold dust. A musky scent surrounded her.

Rhona shook the woman's hand and followed her into a living room airlifted from a north African souk, with oriental carpets, leather ottomans, silk-draped lamps, and lots and lots of polished metal. Several brass trays rested on black lacquered bases and acted as end tables and a coffee table. Brass bowls abounded, some filled with rose petals, others with nuts and dates. Brass candle holders held fat white candles.

“Please, sit down. May I offer you Turkish coffee?” Fatima asked.

Rhona anticipated that Fatima Nesrallah would make a superior brew. Although Rhona realized coffee would keep her awake, it wouldn't matter, for in all likelihood she wouldn't see her bed until very late. “I would,” she said.

While they waited she took in the room. Everything in it would conspire to make a man feel adventurous, as if he'd ventured deep into the Kasbah and was about to experience whatever went on behind the closed doors of that exotic setting.

Fatima returned with coffee and baklava. “I don't make it. I buy it from Artez, a wonderful Lebanese bakery on Eglinton,” she said.

In her head Rhona repeated the name, determined to visit the bakery at a later date. After she sipped the dark, aromatic coffee, she complimented Fatima before she said, “Time for questions. I understand you own all the apartments on this floor and rent them to women.”

“I do. I did well in the market and invested in real estate,” Fatima said.

“You run an escort agency for them.”

“For some I do the booking and check out the clients,” Fatima said.

“Online advertising?”

“Indeed. It's made for businesswomen.”

Rhona could have pushed further, but she wanted to catch a killer, not an entrepreneur.

“Did you know Ms. Trepanier well?”

The woman sipped and considered the question. “Not well. None of the women who live on this floor are close. When we meet we talk only about non-important things.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Four years. Since they created these lovely apartments.”

“I am not interested in the details of your lives except as they relate to Ms. Trepanier. Has she ever spoken of being afraid?”

Fatima laughed without conveying any sense of mirth. “Afraid? When you do what we do you're always a little bit afraid. We didn't have much in common. I'm from Lebanon, a Middle Eastern woman, and she was a classic American cheerleader type. I can tell you she was kind. Ginny's new to Toronto and Sabrina made a point of taking her under her wing.”

“Did Sabrina have friends or family in the city?”

“I don't ask personal questions or note who goes in or out of any of my apartments, but I'd say not.”

“How do men find you?” Rhona asked.

“We advertise. We're officially ‘escorts.' All legal,” Fatima said, watching Rhona to see how she'd react.

“Directly, or do you have someone who vets the callers?”

Fatima broke off a morsel of baklava and chewed slowly. Rhona figured the woman was giving herself time. “The young women pay me rent and some ask me to check out new callers. As I'm sure you know, a bad apple registry exists. If any of the women have trouble with a client, we add his name to that list. Otherwise they have regulars and don't consult me.”

“Do you keep records?”

Fatima smiled but said nothing.

Rhona realized she wasn't going to answer and changed the topic. “Do you have your own list of unwelcome customers?”

“We all use the websites for that.” Fatima smiled. “There are enough lovely men who appreciate bright, pretty women they can take to events, to hotels, or visit here. We don't need the weirdos.”

“We'd like the names of men who gave you or the other women trouble, particularly if they were Ms. Trepanier's or Ms. Wuttenee's clients.”

“Ms. Wuttenee's?”

“The attack occurred in her apartment. Perhaps the killer intended to murder her,” Rhona said.

Fatima considered their request.

“Give us the leads and we'll do the rest,” Rhona assured her.

BOOK: Cut to the Bone
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