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Authors: J. D. Robb

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At her desk, she wrote her report, then outlined a profile of her top suspect for Mira’s review.

Subject is intelligent, organized, possesses IT and AI engineering skills. She is a member of the Women For Women support group and, thus far, acquainted with the female connected to
each victim. She is mature, has access to funds, currently resides in a large, private residence—in fact, currently controls said residence and staff.

Subject is the granddaughter of a legendary actor, a globally known and admired celebrity and activist, primarily for women’s rights and status. Subject’s grandparents had a long-term marriage, by all accounts a near storybook-style love affair until the grandfather’s death. Grandmother still wears wedding ring. A wedding portrait hangs in the main parlor.

Theory: Subject expected and desired a relationship and marriage like her grandparents’. Expected and desired a spouse devoted to her as her grandfather appeared to have been to her grandmother. Subject also desired making a mark of her own by creating her own business through her personal skill set.

Subject’s spouse failed to meet expectations by engaging LCs, having an affair—younger woman—manipulating the terms of the business to profit, then, with divorce, forcing the sale thereof. Spouse compounds the betrayal by purchasing a home with the profit, living there with the younger woman.

While I believe these betrayals would have incited subject to violence of some sort, at some point, the true break came with the support group. There, subject met, interacted, came to sympathize and relate with women who had suffered not only betrayal, but violence, sexual assault, rape. Crimes that had gone unpunished—and, at least in the case of the three victims, behavior that had continued.

Like her grandmother—her ideal—she found her cause, not one where she’d march or make speeches, but would take what she sees as real and necessary action. She would become justice. Again, in a way of emulating her grandmother, she takes on
roles—complete with costumes, personalities—to lure the men, through sex or the promise of sex.

Drugging them not only serves the purpose of incapacitating, rendering them unable to defend, fight, overpower her, but makes them weak, takes their power. Stripping them naked humiliates. Torturing not only gives her control over their pain, but feeds her need to cause their suffering. Castration, obviously, unmans them. It robs them of the weapon they used on women. They die helpless, suffering, and sexless.

She leaves them outside their home to show their betrayal of the home, potentially. To leave them outside—never to have a home again—in public. A last humiliation.

The poem states their crime—in black-and-white. But it’s the name she chooses—Lady Justice—that tells me this is another role, and one for which she wants attention, appreciation, and glory.

The profile of the killer, the profile of Darla Pettigrew mesh for me. Can you confirm or debunk?

Eve read it over, nodded. It helped to write it down, just lay it all out. Maybe Mira would pick it apart, but damn it, it played out. It worked. It fit.

As she sent it off, Peabody came to her door. “First one’s here. Jacie Pepperdine. Where do you want to interview her?”

Eve had already thought that one through. “Get a box.”

Peabody lifted her eyebrows. “Okay then.” She pulled out her ’link, did a check. “A’s open.”

“Book it, take her in. I’ll be a minute.”

“Got it. I take it we treat her like a suspect.”

“Follow your gut.”

Rising, Eve put together a file. Following her gut, she prepared to go
hard if needed. She walked to her skinny window first, took a minute to look out, look down.

Plenty of women out there—and some men, too—who’d experienced what the members of the support group had experienced. And worse, because there was always worse.

She could sympathize, and Christ knew she could relate. But murder sure as hell didn’t balance the scales. Maybe the law didn’t always get it right, but as long as she was on the side of it, she’d damn well try.

She picked up the file, walked out. She assumed Jenkinson and his tie, Reineke and his socks had caught one, as they didn’t man their desks.

Santiago sat at his, scowling under his cowboy hat as he worked his comp. The hat meant he’d lost another bet with Carmichael—who looked pretty pleased with herself while she worked her own.

Baxter had his feet—and his fashionable shoes—on his desk as he held a conversation on his ’link while his young partner diligently wrote up a report. Uniforms buzzed in their cubes.

She scanned the cops under her command, then looked up at the sign posted over the break room door.

NO MATTER YOUR RACE, CREED,

SEXUAL ORIENTATION, OR POLITICAL AFFILIATION,

WE PROTECT AND SERVE,* BECAUSE YOU COULD

GET DEAD.

*EVEN IF YOU WERE AN ASSHOLE.

That’s right, she thought, that’s fucking-A right. And every cop under her command would follow that goddamn perfect son of a bitching motto.

And that’s what she was doing right now.

She walked out, and into Interview A.

She noted both Peabody and Pepperdine had fizzies, and half wished she’d fought a Pepsi out of Vending.

Jacie Pepperdine, age twenty-seven, appeared to be a stunning example of a few generations of race mixing. She had Asian tilted eyes in ferocious green, skin the color of gold-dusted caramel, madly curling hair in jet-black she’d accented with caramel streaks, a long, narrow nose, a long, full-lipped mouth.

“Ms. Pepperdine, this is my partner, Lieutenant Dallas.”

“Okay. Look, if we could just get to whatever this is, I have someplace to be by noon.”

She had a voice like velvet, which, Eve thought, explained why she made part of her living singing in joints—the other half waitressing in them.

“Sure. We appreciate you coming in. You belong to a support group called Women For Women.”

Jacie’s mildly curious expression went to stone. “That’s a private, anonymous group. You have no right to poke in.”

“Maybe you noticed you’re in Homicide,” Eve said easily. “We’re conducting an investigation into three connected murders. Those murders also connect with the support group.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Do you pay any attention to the media?”

“I work. When I’m not working, I’m going to auditions. When I’m not working or going to auditions, I sleep.”

“Nigel McEnroy, the first victim, drugged and raped multiple women, including two who belonged to your group.”

“You want me to feel sorry a rapist is dead? Why didn’t you arrest the bastard?”

“Maybe if one of
his
victims had reported him, we would have. The second victim, Thaddeus Pettigrew, was the ex-husband of one of your
members. He left his wife for the woman—younger woman—he cheated on her with, and through some legal manipulation, forced her to sell the business she’d founded—with himself reaping most of the profits.”

Eve paused, watching Jacie’s face. “You know that story. You know that woman.”

In a gesture combining self-protection with defiance, Jacie sat back, crossed her arms. “I’m not discussing anything, and I mean anything, said in our group.”

“The third victim,” Eve continued, “Arlo Kagen, also the ex-husband of one of your members, physically and sexually assaulted his wife, threatened to harm their young son. Another story you know.”

“Same answer.”

“Okay. What’s your story?”

“I don’t know you. I don’t have to tell you my personal, private business. If that’s all—”

“Sit,” Eve snapped when Jacie rose. “We’ll start with your whereabouts on the three nights in question. Monday, Tuesday, and last night. Say, between the hours of nine
P.M
. and four
A.M
.”

“Monday night, singing in front of a crap crowd—but a crowd at Last Call—from nine to one. I’d have gotten there by eight-thirty, left by one-thirty. I went home—alone—went to bed. That’s the same last night. Tuesday, I served fancy drinks and fancy snacks to the fancy customers of Bistro East. Eight to two—that’s closing. Today, I’ve got an audition to sing in another craphole, but it’s closer to my apartment. You want the rest of my schedule? It runs pretty much the same, seven fricking nights a week.”

“That’s a hard workload,” Peabody commented. “Do you still go to the group?”

“Twice a month. I leave there and go to work. Not a lot of time in there to kill rapists, cheaters, and wife beaters. More, I don’t care about rapists, cheaters, and wife beaters.”

“Somebody did.” Eve opened the file, went hard. “Somebody cared enough to do this.”

Under that gorgeous skin, Jacie paled as Eve laid out the crime scene photos. “Cared enough to torture three human beings, whatever their crimes and sins, for hours. To mutilate them, to kill them. What was the crime against you, Jacie, what was the sin? Is this how you want the man who hurt you to end? Do you want to share responsibility for that?”

“Please put those away. Please, can I have some water?” She nudged aside her fizzy. “Just some water.”

“Sure. I’ll get it.”

“Get me a Pepsi, will you?” Eve asked as Peabody rose. She put the photos back into the file. “Give me his name. Start there. The name of the man.”

“I don’t like to talk about it. I started going to WFW last fall, months after it happened. I didn’t think I could talk about it, but … Natalia—I guess you’ve talked to Natalia—she’s so calming, so … it’s a fancy word but it fits, so empathetic. And the other women, it’s like having sisters there for you, mothers, friends. It’s helped me so much. I can’t believe anyone in the group did what you’re saying. Did what’s in that file. I can’t.”

“Give me his name. Start there, Jacie, because it’s not going to help you if he ends up in this file. It’s not going to help you if he’s dead.”

“Cooke, Ryder Cooke. At about ten o’clock on August eighth of last year, he raped me, and he ruined my life.”

 

17

As
P
eabody came back in
, E
ve considered the best approach
.

“Jacie, we can ask you questions, or if it’s easier, you can just tell us what happened.”

“Nothing’s easier.” Jacie took slow, small sips of water. “I wanted to put it behind me, but he made sure I couldn’t. I have to face it every damn day.”

Peabody started to speak, but Eve shook her head.

They waited.

“I’m a singer. I have a voice, a good voice, and I was willing to do the work, make the effort to improve. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to sing. I didn’t have to be a star, you know? Just sing, make my living, use my gift. I was doing okay, then I got it into my head to come to New York, to push myself. I got some good gigs, too, some really solid gigs. Good reviews, some attention. And a shot at a recording contract. It was like a dream, more than I’d let myself want, but here it was.”

She took another sip, set the water aside.

“A scout from Delray heard me, told me to send an audition disc. I spent a good chunk of my savings booking a studio, good musicians. If I had a shot, I was going to do it right. And it worked, or I thought it did.

“Ryder Cooke is Delray. He’s the star-maker. So when Ryder Cooke asks you to his place to discuss your future, to talk about a contract, you go. I went. We had drinks. I was not drunk,” she added with considerable passion. Her eyes went very bright, not with tears, not now, but with that passion, and with memory.

“I’m not stupid enough to get drunk at the most important meeting of my life. But I had some wine. We talked, and he painted this picture of what I could have, what I could be that meant everything. Then he said there was something I needed to see upstairs.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “Was it stupid? I still don’t know. He never made a move, never said anything that made me uncomfortable, so I went. I didn’t even get a bad feeling when I went into the bedroom with him. Then he grabbed me. He’s a pretty big guy, and I wasn’t expecting … Doesn’t matter. He had me pinned to the bed. I’m telling him no, get off. He says just lie back and enjoy it, baby. Just like that. Lie back and enjoy it, baby.”

She had to suck in air. Let it out again.

“I tried to get him off, to get out, but he was stronger, and he just … After, when I’m crying, and he still has me pinned, he tells me to deal with it. This is how it works. Be a good girl and he’ll sign me, he’ll make me. Tell anybody, make a stink about it, I’ll be finished. Nobody’ll believe me, and I’ll be lucky to earn the price of a sandwich singing on street corners.

“When he rolled off, I ran out. He hadn’t even bothered to pull my clothes off, just my panties, right? I ran out. I don’t know why I didn’t go to the cops.”

Tears spilled now, and she swiped at them with fingertips, impatient. “I was ashamed and shocked and afraid. I did everything wrong that night, okay? I admit I did everything wrong.”

She had to pause another moment, sip more water.

Eve waited her out, signaled Peabody to do the same.

“I went home and I showered. I took shower after shower, scrubbing him off me. And I cried half the night. Useless, useless. Then I started to get mad, and that was better. I went straight into Delray in the morning, and I told anybody who’d listen what happened. And just like he said, nobody believed me. Or if they did, they weren’t going to go up against Cooke.

“I didn’t get the contract, big surprise.” Bitter now, hard and brittle as ice. “I got fired from the decent gigs I had. I couldn’t get another gig in a good venue. He spread the word I was a troublemaker, a drunk, that I used, stole—the works. So now I take whatever gig I can get to make the rent.”

Eve gave it another beat to be sure Jacie had finished.

“Jacie, do you want to file charges?”

“With what?” It all but exploded out of her. “It’s my word against his, so I’ve got nothing.”

Peabody reached over, laid a hand over Jacie’s. “Do you think you were the only one?”

“I— Probably not. No, not the only one, but that doesn’t make me less of a nobody. He’s the star-maker. Who’s going to believe me?”

“We do,” Eve said simply.

Her breath hitched, tore, and the tears rolled down again. “If I try to go after him for it now, after all this time, I will be singing on street corners.”

“No, you won’t. But we’ll leave that for now. You told this story, identified the man who raped you, in your support group.”

“That’s the whole point of the group.”

“Did anyone speak to you more about it, outside of the group?”

“Yeah, some of us went for coffee and bitch sessions after. I did that sometimes.”

“I need names, full names if you have them. We need to talk to them the way we’re talking to you.”

“It doesn’t feel right.”

“We’ve already talked to Jasmine Quirk, Leah Lester, Darla Pettigrew, Una Ruzaki, Rachel Fassley. And Natalia. We have interviews scheduled with Mae Ming, Sasha Cullins, and Bree Macgowan.”

Jacie pressed her lips together. “I don’t know a Jasmine or Leah from group.”

“Jasmine moved away, and Leah hasn’t been for a while,” Peabody told her. “Do you know the other women the lieutenant mentioned? Were they part of your coffee sessions?”

“It’s not always the same people. I can’t always go after the meeting. But I’ve had coffee with everyone you mentioned. Honestly, the only other one I know like that is Sherri Brinkman. Another one dumped by an ex for a younger, but not before he gave her an STD, and pretty much hosed her in the divorce because he’s the one with all the money and the lawyers. She’s like sixty, and maybe hits five-two, a hundred and ten. There’s no way she could do what’s in that folder.”

“Okay. Can you give me an idea how long she’s been in the group?”

“She was part of it before I started going in October.”

“Jacie, when we talk to her, when we talk to the others,” Peabody said gently, “we’re not the enemy. We need to find who’s responsible for these murders, but that doesn’t make us the enemy.”

When Jacie shrugged, stared down at the table, Eve leaned back. “Do you know Mavis Freestone?”

Jacie looked up with a smirk. “Oh sure, me and Mavis, we’re tight. We have lunch every week. Jesus.”

Eve pulled out one of her cards. “Peabody, do you have something to write with?”

Peabody dug out a pencil, handed it over.

“Still got that audition recording?”

“I’ve got my copy, sure.”

“Give me an hour, then tag Mavis at this number. Tell her as much or as little as you want, but tell her Dallas said she should listen to your audition recording.”

Jacie took the card, stared at it. “Are you bullshitting me?”

“What would be the point? It happens that Mavis and I actually are tight. What happens next there is up to you.”

Now tears shimmered, but didn’t roll. She stared at Eve with incredulity, and with just the faintest light of hope.

“Why? Why would you do this?”

“Because we’re not the enemy. Now, whether or not you opt, at any time, to file charges against Ryder Cooke, we will investigate him. You wouldn’t have been the only one. I’m going to do whatever I can to keep him out of this folder, and whatever I can to put him in a cage. That’s it.”

“I—I need to think about it.”

“All right. My number’s on the other side of the card. Thanks for coming in.”

After Jacie, visibly dazed, left, Peabody blinked damp eyes. “That was a totally frigid thing to do, Dallas. Mega frigid.”

“Didn’t cost me anything. Run Sherri Brinkman before you contact her, ask her to come in.”

“Sure.” Peabody got up, started for the door. “Mostly what we do is go after bad guys. It’s nice when we can do something positive.”

“Going after bad guys is plenty positive in my book.”

“You know what I’m saying.”

Yeah, Eve thought when Peabody went out. I do.

She contacted Mavis, got a perky message:

Hey! Abso-truly wish I could chat, but I’m in the studio. Lay a message on me. Cha!

“It’s Dallas. Expect a tag from a Jacie Pepperdine. Do me a solid, okay, and arrange to listen to her audition recording. If it doesn’t blow, pass it to Roarke. Appreciate it.”

She toggled to tag Nadine.

“Ready for that one-on-one?”

“You got it with Peabody. This is semi-connected, and I’m tossing you a big, stinking fish.”

“Mmm, my favorite kind. Does the fish have a name?”

“Ryder Cooke.”

Nadine angled her head, narrowed her eyes. “Don’t tell me you’ve got him on a slab.”

“No, and I hope to avoid that. You’re going to want to start digging, Nadine. I’ve got a woman who won’t, as yet, file a formal complaint, but she’s very credible on my scale. She says he raped her, and the way it went down tells me she’s not the first or the last.”

“Give me her name.”

“Can’t do it. Same as you wouldn’t do it, Nadine. When and if she wants to go public, you’ll have it.”

“Can you give me a timeline?”

“Last August. Dig.”

“You can count on it. Thanks for the tip.”

“Just use it.”

Next, she contacted SVU, laid it out.

“We’ll get you, you son of a bitch,” she grumbled. “One way or the other.”

Back in her office, she added the interview details to her book, ran Ryder Cooke.

Mixed-race male of forty-eight, worth several tidy billion. Producer and president at Delray. He had twenty-six years with the company, his own shuttle, homes in New York, New L.A., East Hampton, Jamaica. Two ex-wives, a rep, from what she read when skimming entertainment media, for being a major player.

And going by that segment of the media, Cooke was currently in New L.A. producing a recording and vids with some band named Growl.

Which kept him safe, for now.

She ran Sherri Brinkman to get the ex-husband’s name, but switched to a run on him.

Linus Brinkman, Caucasian male, age sixty-seven, one marriage, one divorce, two offspring. Currently cohabbing with LaDale Gerald, age twenty-five. (Which brought her in at five years younger than his own daughter.)

Residence in New York, second home on Grand Cayman, and a recently purchased flat in Paris.

Cofounder and CEO of Lodestar Corporation, a company used for promoting events—concerts, major fundraisers and auctions, sports both live and online.

His listed net worth hit nine figures.

Toggling back out of curiosity, she noted his ex-wife barely made six. While her employment data listed her as a VP of marketing with Lodestar for twenty-six years—with two breaks for professional mother status—it now listed her as an administrative assistant, marketing in a smaller firm, for a fraction of the pay.

“Yeah, he screwed you over, didn’t he, Sherri?”

She tagged Lodestar, went through a frustrating runaround to glean only that Mr. Brinkman was out of town and unavailable.

She rose, paced the confines of her office, kicked her desk.

Tagged Roarke.

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant.”

“Is it? Already? Shit. Do you know Linus Brinkman of Lodestar?”

“More or less—more less. We’ve met.”

“How about you put on your expert consultant, civilian, hat, contact his office, and find out where he is and when he’s due back? His assistant has assistants and nobody will tell me.”

“I’ll do that if you make time to eat some sort of lunch.”

“Well for … fine. Just tag me back or text if you get the info. Thanks.”

She wasn’t hungry, she thought, but the rest of her day equaled packed. She didn’t want to make time to eat something, and doubted she’d be able to anyway.

But she could fix it. He had said “some sort” of lunch. She figured a candy bar fit that criteria.

She locked her door, dug the remote out of her desk to turn off the blue dye trap she’d laid for the infamous Candy Thief. After climbing on the desk, she carefully eased up the ceiling tile.

And stared at the empty space.

“Come on!” She dragged a mini light out of her pocket, shined it inside.

Nothing.

“Son of a fucking sneaky bitch!”

Not a sign of the dye—and there should’ve been. So the Candy Thief used a remote, too. Probably a scanner first, which warned of the trap.

She jumped down, scowled up at the tile. Then jammed her hands in her pockets.

She had to admit—hated to, but had to—it was pretty damn impressive.

She unlocked her door, stalked out to the bullpen. Jenkinson and his tie were back—and dear God, this one sported rainbows obviously
generated in a nuclear reactor. So were Reineke and his socks, but she thanked the patron saint of vision she couldn’t currently see them.

Santiago and his hat had rolled over to Carmichael’s desk, where they held an intense conversation. Eve figured it involved an active case or another stupid bet.

Since Baxter and Trueheart were missing, she assumed they’d caught one.

Peabody looked busy with a report.

“This isn’t over,” Eve announced. Activity stopped, heads turned. “Believe me, it’s not over.”

After stalking back to her office, she gave the ceiling tile another scowl. She’d think of something else. Oh yeah, she would.

Her ’link signaled a text.

Brinkman is in Nevada—Vegas—completing some business. He’s arriving in a company shuttle at Startack Transpo Station, private dock, at half-three. Where he will be met by his regular driver and car service. Is expected to check in to the office, but go straight home. He has a black-tie event this evening, and has bookings for a massage, with his stylist, in his home beginning at half-four.

You’re welcome. Eat.

“Okay, okay, that’s good.” Now she scowled at her AC, then turned back as she heard the brisk clicks of heels heading for her office.

It didn’t surprise her to see Mira, or to see her looking pretty as spring in a suit of soft blue.

“I didn’t mean for you to have to squeeze this into your day,” Eve began.

“Not such a squeeze. I’m heading out for a lunch meeting—with Natalia Zula—so I have a few minutes first. And I wanted to ask you if you’re bucking for my job.”

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