ord, have mercy, Dirk . . . what
that horrible smell?” Savannah Reid’s nose crinkled, the same way it did when she got a whiff of a ripe corpse in Dr. Jennifer Liu’s autopsy suite. “Some-thing curled up and died in this jalopy of yours,” she said, her Southern accent soft and thick, despite more than ten years in the California sunshine, amid golden beaches, palm trees, and folks who sounded like television news anchors. She reached for the crank on the car door and quickly wound down the old Buick’s passenger window.
Sitting next to her in the driver’s seat, Detective Sergeant Dirk Coulter happily peeled a soggy paper towel from around something that might have been a sandwich in a previous life and bit off a mouthful. “Egg salad,” he said between chomps. “Want half?”
She tried not to gag. “No. After smelling that, I may never eat again.”
Dirk gave her a sideways grin, a piece of limp lettuce hanging from the corner of his mouth. Dirk Coulter didn’t have a vain bone in his body. Savannah would gladly have arranged a transplant. She would even have volunteered as a donor. “We both know
ain’t true,” he said. “You’re about as likely to skip a meal as I am.”
She laughed at him and flicked the lettuce off his lip with her fingertip. “Neither of us is likely to grow faint with hunger,” she admitted, glancing down at his beginnings of a middle-age beer belly and her own overly voluptuous curves. She took a better look at the sandwich and a memory bell chimed inside her head. It quickly changed to a jangling alarm. “Isn’t that the egg salad on rye that I had left over from Chat-n-Chew Café last Friday night?”
“Yeah. What’s your point?”
“That was a week ago.”
He continued to munch. “So? I didn’t see no expiration date on it nowhere.”
“You’re gonna die.”
“Naw. I can eat anything. I’ve got the digestive system of a billy goat.”
“And the manners to match.”
She reached into her purse that was stashed on the floor beside a nearly empty liter bottle of root beer and pulled out a couple of Snickers bars. In seconds, she was chewing contentedly along with him.
Glancing down at her watch, she sighed. “This is the ninth day we’ve been on this stakeout and your kiddy pornographer hasn’t shown his face . . . or any other part of his disgusting self. It’s a waste of time.”
“And your time is so friggin’ valuable these days,” he said with a nasty smirk that revealed a mouthful of half-chewed egg salad.
“I’ll have you know I’ve raised my rates lately,” she replied. “You’re getting a very expensive freebie here.”
“Oh, yeah. All those customers lined up at your door are paying you twice as much for your private detecting as they did before, right?”
“I prefer to call them ‘clients.’ ” She didn’t bother to mention that the line outside the Moonlight Magnolia Detective Agency had been short lately. Painfully short . . . as in, nonexistent.
“You two stop squabbling,” said a somewhat irritated female voice from the walkie-talkie that lay on the seat beside them. “It could be worse. You could be out here in the hot sun, doing jumping jacks with me and the teenyboppers. This is my third gym period in one morning. I’m pooped.”
They looked across the open field of dried brown grass spread before them to a blacktopped area where the San Carmelita High School was conducting their girls’ physical education classes. Tammy Hart, Savannah’s assistant in her detective agency, was dressed in the school gym uniform of black shorts and a white T-shirt with a bright red bulldog logo, her blond ponytail bouncing as she performed calisthenics with about thirty students. From a distance, no one could tell she was at least ten years older than the girls . . . or see the tiny microphone attached to her shirt or the miniature, flesh-colored earpiece shoved into her right ear.
Savannah and Dirk were parked inside an overgrown clump of oleander bushes with a similar bunch of shrubbery about fifty feet away. That was where they expected their suspect to take his position and begin filming the girls in their less-than-ladylike poses.
This particular cinematographer’s “art” had appeared several times recently on the Internet, on sites that pandered to the kiddie-porn crowd. Apparently, the director possessed a certain amount of technological know-how, because he had altered his product and added some disgusting footage that made the simple film anything but innocent. The police suspected the photographer had also cast himself in the starring role when adding the X-rated material, although the actor’s face hadn’t been shown—only his shortcomings.
And while he might have been a brilliant editor, he had neglected to notice that in the background of his cinematographic masterpiece was the east wall of the school’s gymnasium, which bore its distinctive bulldog logo—big, bright red, and easy for law enforcement to trace.
It hadn’t taken long for the cops to figure out that the tape had been filmed at the high school of San Carmelita, a sleepy, seaside resort town in southern California. They could even tell the angle of the shot and approximately where the dirty old guy had been standing with his camera.
All they had to do was stake out his hiding place—probably that second batch of oleander bushes—and wait.
When Dirk had been assigned to the case, he had talked Savannah into keeping him company and Tammy into supplying the nubile bait.
The three were eager to nail the creep. Dirk and Savannah were in their mid-forties; with any luck, he would appear before they became octogenarians.
“I’m gonna need a potty break pretty soon,” Savannah said, squirming in her seat.
Dirk shrugged with typical male nonchalance. If it wasn’t his bladder, he wasn’t concerned. “You shouldn’t have drunk all that root beer. I ain’t leavin’ now; as sure as we do, he’ll show. If you can’t hold it, do what I did.”
going to ‘sprinkle a bush’ as you so delicately put it. You’re going to take me to a real service station with a real bathroom where I can—”
“Hey, hey, hey! We’ve got a customer . . . or a
, as you like to call them.” Dirk pointed with the remnants of his sandwich at a late-model, dark-blue van that was pulling off the road and rolling slowly toward the neighboring bushes.
He and Savannah watched, their hearts thumping, as the driver cut the engine and sat there, looking around for a few tense moments. After studying the entire area, he seemed to focus on them, peering into the dense foliage that surrounded the old Skylark.
“Do you think he can see us?” Savannah asked.
“Naw. I checked good before. We can see him, but he can’t see us. He can probably feel us, though. You know how those guys are; they’ve got a sorta sixth sense when they’re being watched.”
Even after years as a police officer and private investigator, Savannah was often struck by how “normal” some suspects appeared. The mousy, middle-aged guy in the van was no exception; he could have been anyone’s neighbor, schoolteacher, or local restaurant owner. It wasn’t fair.
“Sexual predators should have to wear a sign or something,” she mumbled, “a tattoo on their forehead that says, ‘Beware of Pervert.’”
Dirk grunted. “Yeah. If you brought your needle and ink, I’ll hold him down.”
Savannah picked up the walkie-talkie and said into it, “Heads up, Tam. Don’t look now, but I think you might have an audience of one. Jog that cute little rear end of yours over this direction and turn him into an admirer.”
“Don’t run straight at us, though,” Dirk added. “Work your way around the edge first. Don’t wanna scare him off.”
Ponytail still bouncing, Tammy left the group and began her jog, first away from them, then, gradually, adjusting her path to head in their direction.
“Duh,” they heard Tammy say, panting, “you didn’t have to tell me that, Dirko. I wasn’t exactly going to race over there, drag him out of his vehicle, and dump him on the ground.”
Dirk turned to Savannah, one eyebrow quirked.
“If you think that’s bad, you should hear what she calls you when you’re not around.”
The van’s driver perked up as the attractive runner drew closer.
“He likes you, Tammy,” Savannah told her. “I think he’s in lo-o-o-ove.”
“Yep,” Dirk said, “he’s getting out his camera. It’s definitely lust at first sight.”
Savannah watched, enraptured, as the suspect held his videocam to his eye and zeroed in on her friend’s bouncing T-shirt. How infinitely satisfying . . . watching an idiot hang himself. Savannah had never gotten over the thrill.
For a moment, Savannah entertained the thought that Tammy’s T-shirt didn’t bounce quite as dramatically as her own would, if she were the one jogging across the field, but that was because Tammy ate far too many salads and not nearly enough desserts. Imagine, choosing spinach over pecan fudge.
Poor girl. Poor, scrawny, deprived child.
Savannah felt truly sorry for her . . . her and all those skinny runway models, and the magazine cover girls, and those stick-thin movie stars and—
“How long do you figure we should let him tape before we nab ’im?” Dirk said, interrupting her pity fest.
“That’s probably enough,” Savannah replied. “We don’t want him to get suspicious. If he’s using a zoom lens, like he did before, and Tammy gets much closer, he might realize she’s not his type . . . a kid, that is.”
“Let’s go get ’im.”
“Yeah, let’s.” Savannah spoke into the radio. “Don’t come any closer, Tammy,” she told her. “Stay where you are and give him something special to film. Make sure he’s looking at you, not us. We’re going now.”
“How’s this?” Tammy bent over from the waist, her diminutive but shapely bottom pointing their way, and began to bounce, touching her toes.
“That’s great, kid,” Dirk said, momentarily mesmerized by the sight. “Keep it up.”
Even Savannah had to admit that salads could make you look pretty good when bending over in a pair of tight black shorts. So there were a few compensations for eating spinach and carrots . . . but not enough to give up pecan fudge and bouncing T-shirt fronts.
The suspect had the camera to his eye and was vigorously twisting dials, adjusting the lens for a better shot. The time couldn’t be better to move on him.
Savannah nodded. “Let’s go, big boy.”
“Quiet and easy does it.”
Quickly, but silently, they opened their doors and slipped out of the car. Leaving the doors ajar, they pulled their weapons, Dirk his Smith & Wesson revolver and Savannah her Beretta. Dirk waved her ahead, and Savannah skirted the edge of the bushes, working her way to the rear of the van. From the other direction, Dirk ran, half squatted, to the driver’s side.
Tammy continued to reach for her toes, doing an excellent job of distracting their quarry. He was clueless until Dirk yanked his door open and pointed the revolver at his head.
At the same moment, Savannah entered the passenger door and plopped onto the seat next to his. She heard his gasp of surprise, immediately followed by a deep, soulful groan of dismay, and the sound tickled her to her toes. Double-dipped chocolate cheesecake and candlelit bubble baths were good, but this . . . this was the best. Life just didn’t get any better.
“Gotcha,” Dirk said, pressing the barrel against his left ear. “I’m an SCPD detective, and you, sir, are screwed. Hand the camera to the lady—nice and slow. That’s it; lay it in her lap . . . and then place your hands on the steering wheel.”
When the suspect turned to surrender his camera to Savannah, she got her first good look at his face: the fine, aquiline features, the sandy blond hair with its businessman’s cut, the wide-set green eyes, the scar across his cheek . . . the one she had put there five years before.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t our old friend, Byron Swift. How are you doing, Byron?” she asked. “More importantly, what are you doing out of jail? I thought we had you locked up nice and tight.”
Mr. Swift, formerly arrested and successfully prosecuted for peeking at little girls going pee-pee in the restroom at the YWCA a few years ago, had nothing to say. He simply sat there, opening and closing his mouth like a Charlie McCarthy puppet without a ventriloquist.
“Naw,” Dirk said, “old Byron here is a banker with lots of bucks. He hired a big-time L.A. attorney and got himself an early parole. In fact, Savannah, I think he’s been up on charges a couple of times since then, and his lawyer got him off each time.”
Byron Swift found his voice, although it proved unnaturally high and squeaky, due to the stress of the moment. “I remember you, too,” he said to Savannah. “You’re the bitch who gave me this—”
He pointed to the now-faded white scar that stretched from the outer corner of his left eye to his mouth.
Savannah’s blue eyes went cold, all traces of humor disappearing from her face. “We already settled that in court, Mr. Swift, and you lost the case. You shouldn’t have swung on me. I don’t like perverts who prey on children, but I take a really dim view of those who slug me in the face when I’m placing them under arrest.”
“You pistol-whipped me,” he whined. His bottom lip trembled, and he looked as if he was about to cry.
“I smacked you upside the head,” she replied, ice in her voice. “I just happened to have a gun in my hand at the time. That’s the risk you take when you resist arrest, numskull. And, by the way, my eye was black for two weeks, so stop your bellyaching.”
Dirk chuckled and nudged him. “Yeah, man . . . you’re lucky she didn’t bust you when she had a case of low blood sugar. She probably would’ve shot you with that pistol instead of just whacking you with it.”
Reaching for Swift’s wrist, Dirk clamped a handcuff on it. “Turn around, buddy, and give me your other hand. Here, behind your back. You’re under arrest, my man. Anything you say can and most certainly will be held against you in a court of law. You have . . .”