“Sure, Rene and I are pretty tight. We worked together in narcotics, but now he's headin' up the detectives over there. He's a good guy. He'll get us in.”
While Zee moved away and talked to Rene, Claire tried to remember exactly what Rene Bourdain looked like. He had visited the LeFevreses often when she'd lived there, but only a vague recollection of his facial features came rolling up out of that misty memory fog. Which happened a lot since she'd come out of that pesky coma. Black told her that she'd remember most things, but that other memories might never come back. She could think of more than one horrible thing she wished she couldn't remember, but Rene Bourdain didn't meet that criterion. Most everything was coming back, slowly but surely, including that short but happy time she'd spent with the LeFevres family when she was around ten years old.
Zee hung up and turned around. “Rene's gonna meet us there.”
Claire turned to Nancy. “You coming back with us or going in with the body?”
“If you'll bring the Tahoe back to the office, I'll go in the van with the body. Better to document the transfer myself.”
“Okay, let's go, Zee.”
Zee spoke up. “This has gotta be a crime of passion, Claire. Beating her up like that, and all. That's what I think.”
“Who knows what motivated this lunatic? Jealousy or revenge, probably. Or maybe, it's just one of those If-I-can't-have-you-nobody-can kinda things. Whatever, I want to get him off the streets.”
“Well, if I was you, I sure wouldn't hang around out here by myself anymore. He may be nuts, but I bet he put your face on that doll for some crazy reason.”
Claire shrugged. “Yeah, probably. We'll find out soon enough. Nancy, wait until I get to the morgue to do the autopsy, okay?”
She and Zee walked through the house, descended the front porch steps, and headed for Nancy's Tahoe. The midday sun was warm on Claire's hair and felt good after the dark and shadowy chill inside the house. Claire wanted to find this guy, whoever he was, wherever he was. She didn't appreciate him putting her face on that doll or leaving a body in her backyard. She was going to get him, and she was going to keep both her weapons loaded and close at hand. If anything, he had given her a warning to be on the lookout for him. And oh yeah, she was going to heed it.
A Very Scary Man
By the time Malice reached high school, he had honed his skills and had a whole bag of tricks to frighten people out of their wits. He had continued to watch scary television shows and movies. He had learned from some of the mean things said and done in books and comic books, and he dreamed of having his own TV show someday, one where he could make lots of money terrifying people and watching their reactions when they thought they had no escape from a terrible fate. Sometimes, he frightened complete strangers at the mall. He would follow them and see if he couldn't find a moment to slip something alive and nasty into their shopping bags so that when his victim rummaged in them, they might find a big hairy spider he'd caught or a handful of wriggling brown night crawlers.
Women especially hated the worms. It was just so funny to watch. He would follow them and wait on pins and needles for the big finale. Sometimes, they would open their bag or tote for some reason, and they would screech with horror and throw the bag as if it were a poisonous snake. The expressions on their faces were priceless. It was hilarious to watch, and he loved trying to do stuff like that on the sly. He liked the sense of power it gave him. Loved it, in fact. He could make people react, tremble and cry out and curse, but they never knew he was behind it. He would just act like the innocent bystander, just as shocked as the store's clerk or the guy waiting on them in the food court. He was getting really good at his tricks, and the thrill was just getting better and better. He always did it on Friday, and called it Fright Night. It was his favorite time of the week.
After a while, he began to watch shows about serial killers and how they abused and mistreated their victims. Sometimes he even got off on the way they murdered people because they killed them in such bizarre and interesting ways. They had rituals and souvenirs and fetishes and things they liked to do with the bodies. He wanted a dead body so bad he could taste it. So, he began to plan how he could get one. He wondered how it would feel to commit murder. How it would feel to stick one of his mom's big butcher knives into somebody's stomach. Maybe the long, sharp one that she cut up chickens withâthat would probably do it. He wondered if he would have to push it in really hard, or if it would just slice the skin open real easy, like cutting into butter. He was pretty sure that he'd have to be fairly strong to do it. Especially if he did a lot of stabbing or carried on with the butchering for a long time.
Finally, he got the chance to try out some of his fantasies. He got himself a girlfriend, one he sort of liked. Her name was Betsy. She was real cute with brown hair and freckles but pretty timid and nervous, too, and easy to frighten. So he started out with all sorts of accidental scares just to warm her up for the big stuff. He planned it carefully, wanting to do it just right, maybe at her house when her parents weren't home. That's when she seemed to be the most nervous, especially when she was alone in her house at night. And her parents liked to go square dancing and to the movies and so forth, so they were gone a lot. Every Tuesday they went down to the parish community center and danced their do-si-dos and all that crap.
One night, after a late football practice, he waited until everybody else was gone, and then he showered and dressed in black clothes like a ninja. He'd seen some kung fu movies and the like, and he knew he'd blend into the shadows when he got into the house. Betsy was home alone. She had begged him to come over so he had told her he'd come by later, right after he was done with football practice. They hadn't had sex yet so he didn't want to scare her too bad too soon and risk her breaking up with him. But he loved her smooth little face and big scaredy-cat brown eyes.
He had gotten her all up and terrified with some bugs and driving too fast and pretending the brakes wouldn't work. She screamed and screamed, and then she'd punched him in the shoulder with her fist when she'd realized that he was lying about the brakes. It was so damn cool. He even liked how she hit him and then fought him some when he tried to console her. He got all excited when she was struggling with him. That was the truth, and he really liked that feeling. He wanted her to fight against him again. He wanted to hold her down and force her to do stuff that he'd always dreamed about doing to a girl.
So he left the stadium, real excited, and drove by the community center to make sure her parents' red Cadillac was still there. It was, so he drove to the woods behind her house and parked in some tall bushes. Then he crept through the darkness to her backyard. He found himself a little nervous, too, because if he got caught, they'd kick him off the football team, and he was really good and was going to win a scholarship to Tulane University. And he liked how all the people at school clapped him on the back and said things about his nice passes or his touchdown runs. The girls were all over him and wanted to wear his letter jacket, but he liked it too much to let anybody else wear it, or even try it on.
Once he got into her backyard, the family's beagle, named Buddy, smelled him right off and barked a little bit. But once Malice tossed him an open package of Oscar Mayer cheesy hot dogs and patted his head, the pooch ignored him and chowed down big time. So he moved stealthily and hunkered down under the family room window. Betsy was sitting inside on the couch, studying her algebra book. She was really smart in math, and helped him with his homework, which was another reason he liked her. But he didn't love her. He loved making her scream, and that was about it.
After slipping his black ski mask over his head and adjusting the eye holes, he pulled out the butcher knife he'd brought and got the back door key from under the flower pot on the steps. People were just so stupid to leave keys around like that. He would never do that, and he didn't let his mom do it, either. He let himself inside, very quiet in his black sneakers. His girlfriend had the stereo on really loud, playing a song by the Rolling Stones. He liked those guys. They always had girls hanging all over them, like Betsy liked to do with him, but then when he tried something with her, she'd always push him away, like he was terrible for wanting to have sex with her. He grinned. She wasn't going to push him away this time, no way.
He approached her from the dining room, tiptoeing up behind her, not making a single sound. When he got right behind the sofa, he grinned to himself, and then he whispered her name in a low, threatening growl. When Betsy whirled around, she got that look on her face for a split second, the one that turned him on so much. It did this time, too. Then she screamed bloody murder and threw her book at him and headed for the front door. Very agile and athletic, he jumped over the couch after her and caught her before she could get out of the room. She fought him desperately, but he lifted weights and outweighed her by at least eighty or ninety pounds. She wasn't all that hard to subdue, and he got her down and held both her hands over her head against the floor and sat on her stomach. She struggled and yelled, and then he hit her in the face. He hadn't really planned to do that, but he did like it. Blood spurted from her nose. She lay still a moment, stunned, but then she started fighting again and clawing at his face with her long red nails. To his shock, she was pretty strong in her terror and somehow managed to pull off his mask.
“You? What are you doing? Stop right now and get off me! Why are you doing this to me? Why? Stop it!” She kept yelling the same things over and over, sobbing now, squirming around under him and getting him all excited. He loved it, loved her fear and disappointment, and the way she ended up begging him to stop.
But now he was in a conundrum, to be sure. She was spitting mad, working herself into a full-fledged rage, still trying to scratch his eyes out, really, truly furious that it was him doing this to her. He couldn't let her tell on him, or he'd lose his scholarship. He just couldn't do that. His parents didn't have the money to send him where he wanted to go. He didn't have a choice now, and he had always wanted to kill somebody, now hadn't he? He wanted to see the light gradually go out of her eyes like it did in the movies.
So he got his knees over her arms and held them down. He put one hand around her neck and he put the point of the knife against her throat. Betsy lay very still then, her eyes wide and afraid, so he put down the knife and pressed both thumbs on her windpipe. That stopped all the yelling, and it got real quiet real quick, except for her gasping and the sound of her heels beating against the floor.
While she suffocated, he got to thinking about all the good times they'd had, at the school dances, and how pretty she'd looked in that short pink formal dress at last year's prom and how she'd helped him cheat his way to a ninety-six on his last math test. She wasn't so bad; maybe he ought to kill somebody else the first time. So he let up, and then she tried to claw his face and called him some real bad names. Then he got so angry that he grabbed the knife and just thrust it down into the side of her throat. He must've hit an artery because blood spurted out everywhere, all over him and the wall and the rug. He scrambled away from her and stood up, but within minutes, she was dead. He had killed her, when he hadn't really planned to, and he hadn't gotten to take her virginity, either, damn it.
Then he ran, outside and through the woods. He stopped at the edge of a little pond and washed himself clean of the blood on his hands and face. But it was all over his clothes so he pulled them off until he wore only gym shorts and a T-shirt. Trembling with fear and excitement and sexual gratification, he put the bloody clothes in a Wal-Mart plastic bag and pitched it into a Dumpster behind a garage. Then he went home, went straight to bed, and lay there reliving the whole thing, over and over, and every time he got more and more aroused. Oh, yeah, killing was fun. Killing was his thing, all right. Maybe he ought to be an assassin or a secret agent. Hone his kills, like James Bond. Kill his victims for money or patriotism. Yeah, that would be his perfect profession, a secret job where he could earn lots of money. He lay awake a long time, wondering how he could make it work, because that's what he was going to do with his life. Scare people, then kill them and watch them die. God, he was so excited that he could barely catch his breath.
Fortunately, Madonna Christien's home address was not hard to find. In fact, it wasn't all that far from the cozy mansion that Claire shared with Black in the French Quarter. There were several apartment buildings on Carondelet Street, but the one they sought sat near the intersection of Carondelet and Gravier with a narrow alley running behind it. The tarmac was in disrepair, grass struggling up between cracks and potholes here and there, but most buildings lining the back alley were in fairly good shape.
Madonna Christien's home looked considerably better than its neighbors. Painted pale yellow with white shutters, it was neat and clean and deserted. The apartment was on the second floor, but had a large enclosed carport space underneath at ground level. A balcony faced the alley, but Claire couldn't see Christien's front door. There was an interior stair that led to a landing unseen from the street.
Various clay pots filled with wilting red geraniums sat on the wide balcony railing. Several more sat on the floor of the deck. A striped yellow cat with a bell on his collar sat on the banister and stared at them with an utterly bored expression. One pot, the largest, lay in pieces in the alley in front of a new-model white Ram truck.
Zee said, “There's Rene. Right on time.”
As they pulled up behind the truck, a man got out and strode back to them. He looked about five feet nine or ten, probably a little bit taller than Claire, and he was ruggedly handsome, with the dark hair and eyes of Louisiana Cajuns. He looked a little different from how she remembered. When Zee rolled down his window, Bourdain leaned in, unsmiling and all business.
“Hey, Zee, my man, how you doin'? Been a while, eh?”
“Yeah, you lookin' good as usual, Lieutenant. Sorry you had to come over here and miss the second half of the game.”
“You sure this here's your victim's address?”
Claire decided to get things on the road. “We're not certain about much of anything at this point. This's the address we found when we identified the body with prints, but the victim's face was painted up. It looks like the same woman.”
For the first time, Bourdain bent down low enough to look at her through the open window. Claire watched his face register surprise, and then he stared at her, as if speechless. “Annie? That you,
, Claire thought. He remembered her better than she remembered him. She did not like him using her birth name. It just brought up a lot of unpleasant questions about her past.
“Hi, Rene. I'm surprised that you recognized me. It's been a long time.” Claire got out of the car and gave him the obligatory smile, but her mind remained on the case.
“Oh, yeah, I heard you was down here with that Dr. Black fella. Hell, you're pretty near famous now.”
“Not really. Who told you I was here?”
“Why, I heard tell from Luc and Clyde and the boys over on the
. I go there to play poker and listen to them play zydeco, and they said that our little Annie gal and Nick Black came in and was talkin' 'bout old times when you stayed down there on the bayou with Bobby and Kristen.”
“I don't go by Annie anymore,” she told him pointedly, but kept the courteous smile. She didn't want to be rude, but she didn't want to discuss any of this in front of Zee, either. She hoped Rene got the message. “It's Claire Morgan now, Rene. Please don't ask me why, that's way too long a story. Right now, I'm working with Zee down in Lafourche Parish.”
“Lord have mercy, little Annie, or Claire, I guess. Look at you, girl, all grown up and pretty as a picture, too, with all that blond hair and those big blue eyes of yours. I'd a known you anywhere. Even with you bein' a grown woman now.”
Claire sucked in a breath and looked him straight in the eyes. She liked the guy, but the last thing she wanted was to reminisce about the old days. “Well, it's good to see you, too. Good to see all the LeFevreses, but right now, we're really anxious to get inside and take a look around. This woman died real hard, Rene, and we want her killer. You can let us inside, right?”
Interesting expressions flitted across Bourdain's face. He appeared highly expressive and easy to read. But his wide grin didn't falter. He was a nice-looking man, and he had been good to her once upon a time. “Sure thing, no problem. The TV folks are callin' you a super detective, that true? Wanna come over and join us at the NOPD? We sure could use you.”
“I'm hardly that. I just got involved in a couple of newsworthy crimes.”
“Well, Luc and Clyde and the rest of us are sure glad you're back.”
But there was one person that Claire was interested in. “What about Gabe? I haven't run into him yet. He still live around here?”
“Ah, Gabe. No, no, he went bad from what I hear. Got himself into drugs and spent some time in prison. You know, just went down the wrong path.”
Zee was just standing there, looking from one to the other, obviously surprised about their past relationship.
“Zee, Rene's a friend of the family I lived with down here for a while.”
Rene nodded. “Yeah, Bobby LeFevres was his name, and a better officer you'd never find.”
“Yeah?” said Zee. “Didn't know that.”
“Bobby and I both rode patrol here in the city. Down in Lower Ninth, mostly.”
“Luc says they both died a long time ago,” Claire said. “I was sorry to hear it. He and Kristen were really good to me back then.”
“Yeah, I still miss them. He was a good friend and a good cop.”
Okay, enough of his sentimental drive down memory lane. Claire was eager to get inside and find something that could help them. On the other hand, they were in Rene's jurisdiction and had to play his game, no matter how chatty he wanted to be.
“Bobby and Kristen were just sick when Family Services wouldn't let you stay with them. They tried to get you back legally, but it didn't go down that way.”
Claire began to get annoyed. She didn't want to have this conversation and had told him as much. Most of her childhood years had not been pleasant, and a lot of it was fuzzy now, anyway. The LeFevreses had been the bright spot. They'd treated her like a daughter. It had broken her heart when she had been forced to leave them, especially their son, Gabriel. “Okay, Rene, enough about me. Let's go in. It's gonna be dark soon.”
“Okay, good enough. Guess what? I already found the key. Right over there on a hook behind the first step.”
“Then let's do it.”
Rene Bourdain took the lead. Zee gave Claire a questioning glance as they followed him up the inside steps. Few people knew about the things she'd suffered during the years when she'd endured so many foster families, not even Black, and that's the way she wanted to keep it. Her own personal little childhood hell, but it was long over.
The steps were neatly repaired and covered with a fresh coat of gray paint. Claire took in everything outside, searching for signs of struggle or forced entry, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Rene opened the screen door and tried the handle. The steel front door was painted indigo blue and was locked up tight. He glanced back at Claire. “I can't believe it's really you, Annie. After all this time. God sure does work in mysterious ways.”
Feeling like she was lost in an episode of
, Claire strove to keep things professional. “Think we ought to knock first, Bourdain? Just in case somebody's home?”
“Oh, c'mon now,
. It's Rene to you, always.” Grinning, he tapped on the door with one knuckle, and they all waited. No answer. No sound of running feet going out the back door, either, or of a shotgun being ratcheted. All good signs, under the circumstances. They waited some more. Rene smiled at her until she felt distinctly uncomfortable.
Jeez, what was with this guy? He was looking her over like a blue-ribbon steer, for God's sake. She stayed in serious-as-sin business mode and hoped he would kiss the nostalgia good-bye and just get down to the business at hand. “Looks to me like everything's pretty normal. No newspapers piled up. Except for the broken flower pot out in the alley, Madonna Christien kept a tidy place.”
“True, but never can tell what goes on behind closed doors.” Bourdain knocked again, harder this time. He called out, “NOPD. Open up.”
No answer. When Bourdain inserted the key, it turned easily, and the door swung open. He called out again and was met with dead silence. He looked back at them and said, “You want me to wait outside while you clear the place?”
“Whatever you wanna do, Rene. We just appreciate you comin'.” That was Zee, the grateful, polite detective, eager to please.
They stepped inside the foyer and glanced around. Directly in front of them, white-draped French doors were closed. Zee and Claire both pulled their weapons, just to be on the safe side. Perhaps still a bit unsettled by all those big black stitches on the victim's face. Rene Bourdain didn't bother. Let them shoot it out all they wanted; he'd just wait outside where it was safe. The front hall led off to their left, and Claire could see the room at the far end. The open door revealed a white iron bed with white bedding. It was barely visible in the interior gloom.
Rene said, “This's your case, detectives. I'm not gonna interfere. Have at it. I'll wait right here.”
What is he, anyway, a U.N. Observer?
Claire thought, but she pulled out some latex gloves and handed a pair to Zee. They snapped them on, stepped once more into matching paper crime scene booties. “Zee, you take the bedrooms down this hallway. I'll check out the back of the house.”
Zee moved off down the hallway, and Claire opened the French doors and stepped inside what appeared to be Madonna Christien's living room. On the far wall, an undraped expanse of plate-glass windows slanted late-afternoon sunlight across the interior. The floorboards were painted white, as were the walls. Except that now there was blood spattered all over everything. Somehow Claire had expected to find neatness and order inside the apartment, just like there was outside, but was she ever wrong. There had been one hell of a struggle inside that room, violent and lengthy and bloody, one that had left pretty much anything not nailed down overturned, broken, or shattered all over the floor.
Sidestepping the mess, Claire edged around the perimeter of the room, weapon out in front, finger alongside the trigger, avoiding pools of dried blood. She was very wary now, although her gut told her that whoever had been there was long gone with the victim in tow and a healthy supply of black and white paint and sewing thread and religious candles. Quickly, she cleared the kitchen and other rooms for more victims or a psychopath holding a voodoo doll with her face on it. After she was satisfied that they were alone in the apartment, she sidestepped her way back through the living room, thinking it looked as if Edward Cullen, that teenage vampire, had stopped lusting after Bella Swan long enough to have himself a hell of a blood feast. She hadn't read those books, of course, but Zee and Nancy had filled her in on every single detail on every single page.
Zee met her outside the French doors. “Neat as a pin in the bedrooms.”
“Look in here, Zee. Madonna Christien was murdered right in there, I'd bet my badge on it.”
Bourdain took a careful step inside the living room. “Christ almighty,” he breathed out. “Maybe I should bring in my forensics team to sweep this scene? Nancy's probably gonna have her hands full down there at Thibodaux by the sound of it, both with your victim and the old LeFevres place. It'd be quicker, too, if we take over at this end.”
Claire considered his offer and looked at Zee for his take. He lifted a careless shoulder and nodded. So she said, “Okay, call them in. There's got to be a ton of trace evidence in here. Look at the blood. It's all over the place.”
Rene Bourdain moved back out into the front hall, his cell phone against his ear. “Okay, Zee, let's look around and see what we can turn up. We can't move anything until the photographer shoots this place.”
There was a white rolltop desk in front of the windows. The top was up, and a handful of unopened mail was scattered around. Seemed like somebody had already rifled through the letters. Looking for what? Claire leaned down and read the print on the top envelope. “This's a gas bill. Sent to Madonna Christien at this address. She lives here, all right.”
Claire found a light switch and flipped it on. The overhead fan with blades shaped like palmetto leaves slowly started revolving, and the lights flared on in a four-pronged light fixture. Several lamps were overturned and broken, the debris scattered around on the floor. A potted palm was lying on its side with dirt spilled all around it, the huge clay pot cracked open. There was a square cocktail table, the glass top cobwebbed with cracks that streaked down to the opposite end.
“Looks like the perpetrator slammed her head down on this glass top. See the impact point, Zee, the starburst thing? I think he choked her unconscious right there on that table and took her somewhere else and painted the body.”
Zee squatted and examined the tabletop. “Blood's accumulated down inside the hairline cracks. Lots more leaked down underneath and stained the rug.”
Claire took a closer look. The blood in the cracks looked like a scarlet spiderweb lying on top of the table, and it had soaked into the white shag rug in a round puddle the size of a basketball. It was congealed now and looked like sticky black tar. Madonna Christien's all-white dÃ©cor made the blood spatter easy to detect. Claire found some long dark strands of hair caught in the cracks. “Looks like her hair, Zee. Hopefully, the killer left his DNA somewhere in all this mess. Notice that everything's white in here?”