Inside the sterile confines of the Lafourche Parish morgue, Claire found Nancy Gill sitting at her desk, waiting for Claire to show up so she could get the ball rolling. Through the big windows separating the office from the autopsy room, Claire could see the nude body of Madonna Christien lying on a steel table. The bright overhead light illuminated the victim's battered face. Now that it had been cleansed of the black and white skeleton paint, the bruises were more visible, as were the awful stitch marks on her eyes and lips. Her hair was long and dark and spread out behind her head.
“I got a little trace off the body, which pretty much amounted to zero. A few hairs, some fibers I can't yet identify. The perpetrator washed her clean with bleach before he painted her up and put her in that voodoo costume. But I'm ready to go, if you are. Is Zee comin' in for this?”
Claire shook her head. “He's interviewing people out along the bayou. I didn't know anybody lived out there, except for Saucier. And I didn't know that until he told me he heard me playing the other night. But, maybe we'll get lucky and Zee will find somebody who saw something. If the guys find footprints, tire tracks, anything, maybe we can tie them to the killer. But nothing's turned up yet, nothing at all. I've got a bad feeling that we're not going to find much. This guy knows what he's doing, and that probably means she's not his first victim. Or his last.”
“He sure cleaned up the victim well enough,” Nancy said, shaking her head. “Okay then, you ready? I'm tired. I need to get some sleep if we're goin' out partying tomorrow night. We are still on for a night on the town, right? Let's go to the
“You bet. I need some downtime, too. Black's coming home late afternoon on Tuesday. So I'm all yours tomorrow. After seeing what I've seen today, I am definitely ready for some fun.”
“Great, me, too. Get on some gear and let's get this done.”
Claire was not thrilled, not one iota, but she donned the protective garb and breathing mask and trailed Nancy into the autopsy room. Finding a crime victim, stabbed or burned or strangled to death by some psychopath, was enough tragedy for her, but standing around watching already abused bodies being sliced, diced, and put on little glass slides didn't remotely ring any kind of happy bells. Autopsies were not trips to Disney World. She'd seen lots of horrible, inhumane things done to other human beings during her career. More than she could count. Zee was even more resistant about venturing into Nancy's domain of the dead. He did everything he could not to step into the room filled with its sickening odors of antiseptic and death and chemicals, so this time Claire bit the bullet for him. Next time, it would be his turn to enter the dead zone.
Claire stood across from Nancy at the steel autopsy table. “Okay, I'm ready.”
Nancy nodded, settled the microphone headset, and switched on the tape recorder. Claire fixed her own breathing gear more securely as Nancy gave the date and place of autopsy.
“The body is that of Madonna Christien, a Caucasian female homicide victim. Observing is Detective Claire Morgan on lend from the Canton Country Sheriff's Office in Missouri and lead detective in the investigation. Measurements indicate the body weight at ninety-nine and one-half pounds; height is five foot and one-half inch. The body shows signs of progressive deterioration. Eyelids and lips have been sewn shut with heavy embroidery thread. Time of death is not definitive, but is estimated at three to five days.”
Nancy continued, each step precise and meticulously documented, but Claire only stared at the severe bruising on the body, distinct and graphic and brutal. Abrasions and contusions mottled the sloughing skin. Along with the serious head injuries, the poor girl had been pummeled with doubled fists or some kind of blunt weapon until she stopped breathing. The extensive injuries fit very well with the disarray at the Carondelet murder scene.
Claire's guess was that the assailant had thrown Madonna's slight body around and slammed her repeatedly into walls and furniture, and her bruises certainly bore proof of it. Which meant whoever the perpetrator was, he had to be strong. On the other hand, Madonna Christien was a tiny little thing. So small that she could have been overcome by a female perpetrator, especially if dazed by an initial head injury. Her fingernails were broken and ragged, indicating that she had fought desperately against her assailant. Nancy had taken nail scrapings, and Claire hoped that the victim had managed to get her assailant's DNA.
Nancy continued her description. “The skull and facial bones are damaged and swollen. A gaping five-inch laceration appears on the back of the head. There is a hemp rope secured tightly around her neck, indicating probable death by asphyxiation.”
Picking up a small pair of scissors from the instrument tray, Nancy carefully snipped through the black threads holding the eyelids closed. She put down the scissors and lifted the victim's right eyelid with a gloved thumb. “After cutting away the thread holding the eye together, petechial hemorrhaging is observed, also an indication of death by strangulation, as is the bruising around the throat and the discoloration of the facial skin after the paint was removed.”
Claire watched and wondered about Jack Holliday. Was he really capable of inflicting these massive injuries to a woman half his size? Maybe a guy like him could kill a woman in a rage, but taking the time to sew her eyes shut? Good God, that took a sick person, a special kind of monster, one who no doubt hid in the dark and crept around like some kind of poisonous spider. A famous local sports legend did not fit the profile. Then again, desperate people did reckless things. And some celebs thought they were above the law and above getting caught, much less convicted of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, lots of times they were right.
Claire's cell phone vibrated alive, then started to sing. She grabbed it, thinking it was Black checking in for the night. A little disappointed, she saw Rene Bourdain's name. Claire punched on quickly, hoping he had some good news. “Detective Morgan.”
Moving into Nancy's office again, she was glad for the interruption, since Nancy had just started the Y-cut incision that would open Madonna Christien's torso.
“Jack Holliday agreed to talk to you tomorrow, but he wants to do it at his house out in the Garden District. He's throwin' some kinda shindig for his Special Olympics kids out at the Dome first and wants to talk to you after that. It's for some kind of organization he's a part of out at Tulane.”
Claire sat down in Nancy's swivel chair and watched Nancy through the window. “So he really is into charity work? Doesn't sound much like the pastime of a cold-blooded, voodoo killer.”
“You might be surprised. Ted Bundy worked a suicide line, if I recall. I just hope the media doesn't show up. If they do, stay under the radar and don't mention my name, even if you've got to end the interview. If he's got somethin' to do with this, all hell's gonna break loose around here, and your murder's gonna go viral in about three seconds.”
“Chill, Bourdain, we don't have anything on him yet. Except the restraining order and the victim's apparent obsession with him.”
“I hope to God you're right. Some people around here still worship the ground he walks on. Maybe we'll get lucky, and he can point you to somebody who had it out for her.”
“We'll see, I guess.”
“From what I've learned so far, your victim isn't any angel. Prostitution charges and weed possession. Also got intel that she did some stripping at a biker bar off Magazine. Lowlife dive called Voodoo River.”
“Well, that just fits right in with all the other weirdness, doesn't it? Want us to check it out? Say the word and we're on it.”
“Be my guest. But ya'll be careful. The biker gang that hangs out there? They call themselves the Skulls, and they won't like you comin' around snoopin' on their turf. Madonna Christien was into drugs, too, and there's probably gonna be more charges that'll come up on her rap sheet. I'll get back to you when I get the full report.”
“What about her apartment? Forensics find anything we can use?”
“Yeah, they picked up a lot of latents. Two unknown, another off one of the hurricane glasses that came up as Madonna Christien, alias Jilly Johnston, alias Shannon Martin. But the Madonna one is her real name. She was incarcerated under that name for soliciting tourists on Bourbon Street about a year ago. Record's clean since then.”
“She works the Quarter?”
“Did the stroll back then. Looks like she turned that gig into some kind of call girl business, not exactly the high-priced kind, but still better than working the streets.”
“Rene, you said you knew Holliday personally, right? Is he really hard up enough to pay for a hooker?”
Rene snorted and smothered his laugh. “Hell no. He can have any woman he wants. Haven't you seen the guy? Women chase him. But any man would pay for a hooker, given the right circumstances. Men are men. You gotta know that.”
Claire wondered if that were really true. Some guys fit that bill, true enough. But Holliday wasn't just any man. Just like Rene had pointed out, he dripped money, fame, charisma, and sex appeal. His bedroom probably had a revolving door.
Rene said, “Some guys like the power trip. Buy a woman and force them to do whatever they want. Domination, plain and simple.”
“Did you tell Holliday why we want to see him?”
“I told him you had some questions about a case you're workin' on down in the Lafourche bayous near Thibodaux.”
“Did he ask a lot of questions about it?”
“Not really, we talked over the phone. He offered to meet you tonight as soon as his plane lands out at Louis Armstrong, but I figured you'd need more time to prepare your interrogation. His flight's due in around midnight.”
“You're right, I want to know everything about him before we sit down. Do I have permission to ask for his prints?”
“You can do whatever you want, as far as I'm concerned. My advice, though? Ask him to give them willingly. Can't see him being anything but cooperative, not at this point.”
“Do you like this guy, Rene?
“He comes off like the genuine article, but lots of bad guys do. I'm sure you know that.” He paused. “God, it was good to see you again. Never woulda thought we'd be workin' a case together.”
“Yeah. Got anything else for me?”
“Nope, our techs are still running tests. There was a lot of stuff in that apartment, but I'll keep you posted. Want me to fax you what we've got so far?”
“Yes, please. Send it here to Nancy's office. You want to be there when we talk to Holliday?”
“No can do. Got departmental meetings all day tomorrow. You need anything else from us, you just let me know, okay?”
Claire gave him the fax number, and they hung up. Claire rocked back and forth in Nancy's chair and considered everything he'd said. She could hear the buzz of Nancy's cranial saw and was glad Rene had chosen that particular moment to call. Claire would read the autopsy report later. Excised brain matter wasn't exactly appealing right before dinner. Across from the desk, Nancy had tacked up posters of some of the Saints players. Holliday had the place of honor.
And Claire was right. It was the same poster that Madonna had on her closet door. At the bottom was the title. She hadn't noticed that before.
. Oh, God, how embarrassing was that? Black would absolutely croak if anybody called him that, even though it described him, too, lucky for her. Yeah, she missed him and all those hard-packed muscles of his. Might as well admit it. Nobody could hear.
She stared at the poster some more, wondering if he could really be the homicidal murderer she was looking for, a beast who could beat a woman black and blue and strangle her and sew up her body parts. Claire suddenly got a visual image of a man bent over a body in the flicker of dozens of white candles, his sharp needle piercing the thin skin of her eyelids and pulling them tightly together. She shivered.
Nancy's flat-screen television sat on top of a filing cabinet and was tuned to ESPN's
, the sound muted. Jack Holliday's face flashed up on the screen, and Claire scrambled for the remote. He was praising the scoring ability of one of his clients.
“Hey, Claire, they beat the crap out of Dallas. You hear the score? Hey, there's Jack. Does he look good, or what?”
Claire glanced over at Nancy. “Sorry to tell you this, Nancy, but your hero there is our main person of interest at the moment.”
“Afraid so. Rene says the victim is a known prostitute, and she has a special closet in her house that's a virtual shrine to him. If we find his fingerprints in her house, he's got a lot of explaining to do.”
“Nah, he's a smart guy, and he's got way too much to lose to kill a prostitute.”
“Funny you said that. So did Rene and Zee.”
“Are you going to get to meet him? Can I go?”
Claire sighed and then had to laugh. How would it feel to be worshiped and obsessed over by everyday people, people who were normal and productive in every other way? Bizarre, she suspected. She would hate it. She hated the little bit of media coverage she'd gotten. She hated it even worse when people recognized her name. “I call it interviewing a person of interest. But hey, Nancy, cheer up, you might get to meet him if we throw him in jail.”
“Not gonna happen, trust me. And guess what? I found an identifier on the body. A little homemade tattoo, one I think you're gonna find very interesting.”