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Authors: John Lutz

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BOOK: Chill of Night
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3

It felt like butter.

Lois Banner stood in front of the bolt of rich fabric and again ran her fingertips over it along the barely discernible warp of the material that was so incredibly soft despite its high wool content. It was dark gray, with a faint black splatter pattern, and would be perfect for some of the fall lines she'd seen at last week's fashion show.
Evening in Paris
was the name the supplier had affixed to the material, and Lois thought they had it right. That was what the soft fabric reminded her of, her earlier, not-so-innocent years in the city that lent itself to sin.

Lois herself was a former fashion model, almost forty now, and twenty pounds beyond her working weight. But she would still look good in some of the clothes due in the shops next season. In fact, she would look fantastic. Her features were still sharp, her eyes a brilliant blue, and her dark hair was skinned back to emphasize prominent cheekbones that looked like swept back airplane wings. As a model she'd been considered exotic. She was still that, if she dressed for it. Which happened less and less often.

Lois preferred to spend time tracking fashions and buying the wonderful fabrics that her customers, gained from longtime business contacts, would purchase wholesale to make the most of what was new. And always, in the world of fashion, something—the most important thing—was
new
.

The main office of Fabrics by Lois was on Seventh Avenue. This fabric warehouse and showroom was on West Forty-sixth Street, in the loft of a building that housed offices below. Though most of the bolts of fabric were stored vertically to maximize space, at five feet, ten inches, Lois was the tallest thing in the unbroken area with its vast plank floor. It was evening and dark outside. The Forty-sixth Street end of the loft was shadowed but for dappled light that filtered through unwashed windows and skylights. The rest of the area was dimly illuminated by original brass fixtures suspended on chains from the high ceiling. Lois would not abide florescent lighting—
the cruel tricks it played on colors!

She was dressed simply and casually in black slacks and blouse this evening, and wore white Nikes, no socks. On Lois, the outfit looked even more expensive than it was.

A breeze played across her bare ankles, as if a door had opened. But the loft was accessible by elevator. The only door was to the fire stairs that ran down the south side of the building.

The subtle change of temperature jogged Lois' memory. She glanced at her Patek Philippe watch, a gift from a long-ago admirer. Almost eight o'clock, and she was due to meet a buyer for drinks at nine. She barely had time to get to her apartment, shower, and change clothes.

Time to lock up. But she couldn't resist running her fingertips one more time over
Evening in Paris.

A slight noise made her glance to her left.

She gave a sharp intake of breath. A shadowy figure stood silently among the tall fabric bolts.
Almost like someone standing watching in a corn field.
The bucolic image surprised Lois and, through her fear, unpleasantly reminded her of her childhood in Ohio. She belonged here! In New York or Paris or Berlin. She was no longer the early version, the early Lois Banion, who was no more.

“Who—” she began in a strangled voice.

The figure, a man, stepped forward, and she could see in his right hand a bulky object which she recognized as a gun with a silencer attached to its barrel.

Lois forced herself to speak. “If you want money, there isn't any here.”

The man said something she didn't understand.

“What?”

“Justice,” he said softly, and raised the gun as if to point it at her like an accusing finger.

“My God,” she said in a small girl's voice, “what have I done?”
What haven't I done?

Oh, Jesus, what
haven't
I done?

The gun jumped in the man's hand, and she felt a fire and then a numbness in her chest, and she was on the floor. Terrified, she tried to get up and found herself entangled in fabric. Tried to get up. Tried not to die. Tried to get up.

The light was fading. She was staring up at one of the dangling brass fixtures, and it was like a distant star, moving even farther away.

There was no pain, she realized.
Incredible! No pain!
For that, at least, she was grateful.

If there's no pain, why should there be fear?

Evening in Paris
enfolded and embraced her like a warm, welcoming shroud.

4

To his friends and enemies, Artemis Beam was simply “Beam.” Ella, the waitress at the Chow Down Diner on Amsterdam Avenue, thought of him as “Over hard.” The way he liked his eggs. The way she figured he was.

Beam sat in his usual booth near the window, where he could look out on the street over coffee and his folded
Times,
at people who had places to go in a hurry. He had no particular place to go, but he thought that if need be, he could still get somewhere in a hurry. Though he walked with a long, limping lope, the truth was that the leg didn't hurt much anymore, and he was still in pretty good shape and could move fast.

Another truth was that Beam hadn't been eased out of the NYPD four months ago only because of the gunshot wound. Politics had been involved. Beam had never been in his element within a bureaucracy—which the NYPD was—and had stepped on the wrong toes.

The resultant trouble had been all right with Beam, except that his job was at least partly the cause of his wife Lani's bouts of depression. Almost a year had passed since Lani's death leap from the apartment balcony near Lincoln Center.

Beam was still grieving for his wife, still trying to come to terms with the hard fact that she was actually gone, that the dark winds of her tortured mind had finally claimed her, and that in part it had been his fault. Because of who he was, because of not quitting the department sooner, because of all the things he hadn't done and all the words he hadn't spoken and she would now never hear. She had left him behind in a cold world that denied him peace and comfort.

Still feeling the effects of the Ambien he'd taken last night to get to sleep, he sipped his coffee and gazed out at the crowded sidewalks and stalled morning traffic on Amsterdam Avenue.

New York. His city, like clustered Towers of Babble, that he used to protect, that he still loved. Where he was born to a Jewish father and Irish mother, and, with Cassie, raised on the Lower East Side. His father, who'd been a cop.

The city still needed protection, needed to be set right again and again because that was its raucous, rowdy, and sometimes deadly nature.

The hell with it! Not his problem anymore.

Beam was getting accustomed to not thinking about his past, but it still scared the hell out of him to contemplate his future. His future alone.

He still didn't mind stepping on toes. And he didn't feel like being involved again with the NYPD.

He knew Andy da Vinci was going to ask him to do both those things.

 

Beam's eyes narrowed at the invasive morning light beyond the window. There was da Vinci, picking his way like a nifty broken-field runner through the stalled traffic before the signal at the intersection changed, engines roared, horns blared, and he might be run down and over and dragged. He was grinning, obviously relishing the challenge.

Dumb! Beam thought, but he liked da Vinci. It was just that needlessly risking a life wasn't Beam's game.

“Topper?”

Ella was standing next to his booth, holding the round glass coffee pot, staring down at him with a questioning look on her long, bovine features.

“Sure,” Beam said.

Horns honked wildly outside. Da Vinci hadn't quite made it all the way across and was really dancing now, his moves a graceful series of passes within inches of bumpers and fenders. He was still grinning, now and then waving, or flipping off an irate driver.

“Look at that idiot,” Ella said, staring out the window as she poured coffee into Beam's cup. “He's gonna get himself killed.”

“Bet not.”

“You're on.”

“I know him,” Beam said. “He's on his way here. Pour him a cup of coffee. I know he'll want one.”

“You don't mind,” Ella said, “I'll wait till I know it's necessary.”

And she did. Da Vinci was safely up on the sidewalk before she brought another cup from the nearby counter and poured.

 

“Mine?” da Vinci asked, pointing to the steaming cup, when he'd pushed inside the diner and slid into the booth to sit across from Beam. There were perspiration stains beneath the armpits of his otherwise pristine white shirt. It was going to be a hot summer.

“Yours. And on me.”

Da Vinci flashed his handsome grin and shook hands with Beam. “It's good to see you again, Cap.”

“No longer a captain,” Beam said.

“Hard not to think of you that way.”

“The waitress and I had a bet about whether you'd make it across the street.”

“Ah! And you had faith in me.”

“I knew you,” Beam said. “And by the way, I still think of you as Deputy Chief da Vinci.”

“Good.”

Da Vinci skipped cream but dumped three heaping tablespoons of sugar into the cup. Still living dangerously.

“Had breakfast?” Beam asked.

“Naw. Never eat it. My stomach doesn't like it. What I came here for's to talk.”

“My stomach doesn't like that,” Beam said.

Da Vinci sampled his coffee and smiled. He was handsome enough to be an actor, dark wavy hair, slightly turned up nose, strong chin and clear gray eyes. Young Tony Curtis, Beam thought.

Da Vinci was in fact the youngest deputy chief ever in the NYPD. He was clever and shamelessly ambitious, but at least he was up front about it. Despite his sometimes brash and manipulating manner, Beam liked him. Da Vinci had proven himself incorruptible and dedicated, two virtues Beam admired. It was also rumored that eight years ago da Vinci, as a young motorcycle cop, planted a “throw down” gun after pursuing and shooting to death a Mafia enforcer without giving him a chance to surrender. The thug had deliberately run down and killed an assistant DA's six-year-old daughter. A review board had, without winking, cleared da Vinci of any wrongdoing. That was fine with Beam.

“Better talk before you run out of coffee,” Beam said.

“Doesn't matter. The waitress will top off my cup.”

“Not if she thinks I want you to leave.”

“Don't kid yourself, Beam. Women love me, with or without coffee. I give her the word and she might chase you away.”

“Doesn't a deputy chief have more important things to do than yak with an old retiree in a diner?”

“That's for damn sure. Which means the old retiree oughta be wondering what it's all about.”

“Give my friend some more coffee,” Beam said, as Ella passed close by the booth with her pot.

Da Vinci sat silently and watched as his cup was topped off. He didn't seem at all out of breath from playing dodge with the traffic. Must still be in pretty good shape.

“Two words,” da Vinci said, when Ella had left. “Serial killer.”

“Not my favorite words.”

“But nobody was ever better at getting inside their sick minds. Especially the vigilante types who think they're righting some terrible wrong.”

Beam knew what da Vinci was talking about. Four years ago Beam had hunted down and nailed Reverend Death, the city's last vigilante serial killer, who had been murdering porn shop owners whose establishments the city seemed unable to shut down.

“We got one who might be cut from that same sanctimonious cloth,” da Vinci said. Two days ago a woman named Lois Banner was shot and killed in her fabric warehouse. Two weeks before that a tax attorney named B. Eder was whacked.”

“What's the
B
stand for?”

“Nothing. Like with Harry S. Truman.”

“Nobody ever called Truman ‘
S.
'”

“Doesn't matter. Two weeks before B. Eder, an exercise equipment salesman named Harry Meyers was murdered.” Da Vinci sipped coffee and looked at Beam. “All of the victims were shot.”

“With the same gun?”

“No doubt about it. A serial killer. The media hasn't tumbled to it yet.”

“They will soon. The NYPD does nothing better than leak information.”

“So it won't be long before they leak the letter
J.

“Is it something like Truman's
S
and the victim's
B
?”

“No, we think it stands for something. At the scene of each murder was a capital letter
J.
Lois Banner's employees discovered her body under some kind of fabric, and a red cloth
J
had been cut out and placed on the corpse.”

“All the
J
s cut from red cloth?”

“No. But they're all red. The attorney had red marking pen on his forehead. The exercise salesman had a red
J
torn out of a magazine ad tucked in his breast pocket.”

“But you don't know what the
J
s stand for?”

“We're not sure. But Eder was Jewish. Meyers wasn't, but his name could have suggested in the mind of the killer that he might have been. Same way Banner, though her real name was Banion.”

“Anti-Semitism. Nasty.”

“If that's what's going on. Some kinda religious or political nut.” Da Vinci stared at his coffee cup, as if he didn't like its contents, then placed the cup on its saucer and stared across the table at Beam. “I don't really give a frig about the why of it, Beam. I just want the bastard stopped.”

“Why not give this knotty problem to a working homicide detective instead of one who's happily retired?”

“You're not happily retired. And you happen to be the best at this kind of investigation. And I'm gonna be honest with you. You break this case, as I know you will, and I'll get credit for putting you on the scent. I could make chief.”

“Being nakedly ambitious becomes you.”

“I also think you're a certain kind of cop, Beam.”

“The kind you are?”

“Yeah, only much more so. What I think of your kind of cop is that they're Old Testament cops. Now and again, they play God. You got a reputation for bending the rules, even the law, in the interest of seeing justice done. And as you're already retired and more or less don't give a shit, you'll bend whatever you have to in order to nail this letter
J
scumbag.”

Beam had to smile. “I'm more used to being called a dinosaur than God.”

Da Vinci shrugged. “God is a dinosaur.”

Beam thought he better not ask what da Vinci meant by that. Didn't want lightning to strike the booth.

“You do this thing, Beam, and you'll be on a work-for-hire basis, have a captain's status, and all the resources of the NYPD at your disposal. And I'll assign you a team of detectives.”

Da Vinci bolted down the rest of his coffee, making another sour face, then stood up from the booth.

“This where you ask me to think about it?” Beam said.

“Naw. You know I know that you know.”

“That I'll do it,” Beam said.

Da Vinci smiled. “I'll have Legal draw up a contract.”

“Nothing in writing,” Beam said.

“That's not the way it works.”

“That's the way I work.”

Da Vinci's grin widened and he shook his head. “Okay. Dinosaurs never had anything in writing.”

“I'll work this case my way, out of my apartment.”

“Why?”

Beam shrugged. “I'm retired. But I do want access by computer to NYPD data bases.”

“Easy enough. But you're gonna need those investigators.”

“A couple of good ones,” Beam said. “And some added uniform help if and when I need it.”

“You mean you're not gonna wrestle this guy to the ground yourself?”

“Let me think on that one,” Beam said.

“Okay, we'll meet again and I can give you more details.”

Da Vinci grinned, saluted, then turned and strode from the diner. Beam watched him cross the street the other way, toward his illegally parked car. There wasn't much traffic just then. Da Vinci seemed to wish there were some.

“What was that all about?” Ella asked, standing by the booth and clearing away dishes.

“Extinction,” Beam said.

 

Beam's bedside phone that night was insistent, piercing his sleep with its shrill summons, not letting him sink back each time he rose toward the real world.

He reached out in the darkness, noticing that the luminous hands of his wristwatch had edged past midnight, and found the receiver. He drew it to him and mumbled hello. Terrible taste in his mouth.

“Cassie, bro,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Just thought I'd call and tell you about this dream I had.”

“I wasn't dreaming,” Beam said, annoyed, “which is rare for me.”

“It was about you.”

“Great.” He wasn't in the mood for one of Cassie's hazy prognostications.

“I think it was about you, anyway. Had to do with biblical figures. In a place with tall stone columns, like a temple. I could make out faces. One of them was yours. The dream was about betrayal.”

Beam waited, exhausted. “That's it?”

“It was vague. Piecemeal. Like most of my dreams. But you were in it. You and someone close to you—I'm not sure who, or if it was a man or woman.”

“Tall stone columns. Maybe Julius Caesar. Brutus is gonna stab me in the back. Kinda thing happens to me all the time.”

“You weren't Julius Caesar, bro. Biblical, but not Roman.”

“And I'm gonna be betrayed by someone close to me? Like Jesus?”

“No. You were Judas.”

“Terrific.”

“Hey, you know how dreams are, all mixed up. Probably means nothing.”

“Thanks for calling.”

“No problem.”

Try getting back to sleep after that.

BOOK: Chill of Night
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