Authors: Chris Carter
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery
Roy nodded his agreement.
Hunter noted Calvin Lange’s name down and his eyes returned to the photo frames on the wooden desk. ‘Being a successful artist consequently means having fans, I suppose.’
Denise nodded proudly. ‘Her work was admired and loved by many.’
‘Did Laura ever mention any . . .’ he searched for the right words, ‘ . . .
‘You mean . . . like a stalker?’ Her voice faltered for an instant.
Denise finished the rest of her whiskey in one gulp. ‘I never thought of it, but she did mention something a few months ago.’
Hunter put down the picture frame he was holding and took a step in Denise’s direction. ‘What exactly did she tell you?’
Denise’s gaze moved to a neutral point on the white Nepalese rug in the center of the room as her memory struggled to remember. ‘Just that she’d started receiving some emails from someone who said he was in love with her work.’
‘Did she ever show you any of these emails?’
Hunter looked at Roy questioningly, who shook his head.
‘Did she tell you what they said?’
Denise shook her head. ‘Laura played it down, saying that it was just a fan being flattering of her work. But I did get the feeling that something about it had spooked her.’
Hunter wrote again in his notebook.
Denise moved closer, stopping at an arm’s reach from Hunter. She looked into his eyes. ‘How good are you and your team, Detective?’
Hunter frowned as if he hadn’t understood the question.
‘I wanna know if you can catch the sonofabitch who hurt my daughter and took her from me.’ The grief in her voice was gone, substituted by undeniable anger. ‘Don’t tell me you’re gonna do the best you can. The police are always doing the best they can, and their best is rarely good enough. I know you’re gonna do your best, Detective. What I want you to do is look me in the eyes and tell me your best
be good enough. Tell me you’ll catch this sonofabitch. And tell me you
make this sack of shit pay.’
Whitney Myers used the little gadget Leonid Kudrov had given her to activate the gates to the underground garage in Katia’s apartment block. As she drove in, she immediately spotted Katia’s torch red V6 convertible Mustang parked in one of the two spaces reserved for her penthouse apartment. Myers took the empty spot next to it, got out and placed her right palm on the Mustang’s hood. Stone cold. Through the window, she checked its interior. All seemed fine. The car alarm light was blinking on the dashboard, indicating that it was active. Myers paused and allowed her eyes to roam the whole of the garage. The place was well lit, but there were many dark spots and corners where someone could hide. She noticed only one security camera, on the ceiling, facing the garage’s entrance door.
Myers retrieved a pair of latex gloves from the box in the back seat of her car and rode the elevator up to the penthouse. There, she used the keys Leonid Kudrov had given her to gain access to Katia’s apartment. No alarm. No signs of forced entry.
She softly closed the door behind her and paused for an instant. The living room was immense and decorated with a lot of style. Myers took her time looking around. Nothing seemed out of place. No signs of a fight or struggle.
She made her way to the spiral stairwell in the corner and moved up to the top floor. On the mezzanine landing, she found Katia’s car keys in a tray on a tall chest of drawers crowded with family photographs.
Myers moved on down the corridor and entered Katia’s bedroom. The walls were painted in pink and white, and there were enough stuffed toys on the perfectly made king-size bed to keep a crèche occupied for weeks. Myers checked the pillows on it. No smell. No one had slept in that bed last night.
Katia’s two suitcases lay on the end of the bed seat. They were both open, but it looked like she hadn’t had time to unpack them. The bedroom’s balcony door was locked from the inside. Again, no signs of forced entry.
Myers moved on to the walk-in closet. Katia’s collection of dresses, shoes and purses took her breath away.
‘Wow.’ She ran her hand down the front of a Giambattista Valli dress. ‘A dream wardrobe,’ she whispered. ‘Katia had taste.’
In the en-suite bathroom, she noticed a hair towel was missing from the rail.
Myers moved out of the bedroom and into the next room along – Katia’s practice den. The room was spacious but simple. A stereo system on a wooden sideboard, a couple of music stands, a mini fridge on the corner and a comfortable armchair pushed up against a wall. Katia’s violin case was on a small coffee table by the door. Her priceless Lorenzo Guadagnini was lying inside it.
Leonid had told her that Katia was obsessed with her Guadagnini violin. If it weren’t by her side, it’d be in her safe behind the large painting of Tchaikovsky on the wall, no exceptions.
Myers found the painting and checked the safe. Locked. Despite her previous confidence that Katia had just skipped town for a few days, she was getting a very bad feeling about this.
Myers returned downstairs and walked into the kitchen. It was as big as most studio apartments in Los Angeles. Black marble worktops and floors, polished steel appliances and enough pots and pans hanging from a center island that could give any small restaurant a run for their money.
The first thing Myers noticed was the missing hair towel from the en-suite bathroom upstairs. It was lying on the floor a few steps away from the fridge. She picked it up and brought it to her nose – a sweet, fruity smell that matched the bottle of designer hair conditioner in Katia’s bathroom.
Myers looked around. There was a bottle of white wine on the breakfast table. No glasses were out. No corkscrew either. But what really caught her attention was the blinking red light on the answerphone at the far end of the worktop. She walked over and looked at the screen.
‘I guess Katia is a popular woman.’
Myers pressed play.
‘You have sixty new messages,’ announced the prerecorded woman’s voice. ‘Message one.’
At the end of it there was a beep, and the machine moved on to the next message.
And the next.
And the next.
‘What the hell?’ Myers took a seat on the barstool next to her. Her eyes settled on the large clock hanging from the wall above the door.
The messages kept on playing, not a whisper in any of them. After maybe the fifteenth or twentieth message, Myers picked up on something that made her skin crawl.
‘No fucking way.’ She pressed the stop button and then rewound the messages back to the very first one. She started from the beginning again. Her eyes returned to the clock above the door, and this time she let them play all the way to the fifty-ninth message. Silence in every single one of them, but the pattern she found told her that that silence had its own chilling meaning.
‘I’ll be goddamned.’
The last message started playing, and suddenly the silence was substituted by a long stretch of static, catching Myers by surprise and making her jump.
‘Jesus . . .’ She brought a hand up to her thumping heart. ‘What the hell was that?’ She rewound it, leaned closer to the machine, and played the message again.
Static noise blasted through the tiny answerphone speaker.
Myers moved even closer.
And what she heard, half-hidden by the static sound, sent a cold shiver down her entire body.
From the car, even before leaving the Mitchells’ driveway, Hunter called the Office of Operations and asked them to gather all the information they could on Patrick Barlett, Laura’s ex-fiancé. He’d just become a priority person of interest in the investigation.
Hunter disconnected and speed-dialed Garcia’s number. He gave him the lowdown on everything he’d found out from the Mitchells and they met half an hour later at the entrance to an old warehouse turned apartment block in Lakewood, minutes away from Long Beach.
Hunter looked subdued but Garcia didn’t have to ask. He knew that breaking the news to parents that their daughter had been the victim of a monstrous killer was already hard enough. But to have to tell them that they couldn’t even give her a proper burial because the body had been blown to pieces was really the stuff of nightmares.
They rode the elevator up to the top floor in silence.
Laura Mitchell’s apartment was an astonishing two thousand square feet loft conversion. The living area was simple but stylish with black leather furniture and sumptuous rugs. The kitchen was to the right of the entrance door and the sleeping area to the left – both modern, spacious and decorated with taste. But the bulk of the apartment was taken by her art studio.
Set at the far end and surrounded by large windows, including two skylights, it was filled with canvases of all sizes. The largest one was at least twelve foot by six.
‘Wow, I always loved loft conversions,’ Garcia said looking around. ‘I could fit four of my apartment in here.’ He paused and checked the door. ‘No forced entry. You said that her parents told you that they last heard from her two and a half weeks ago?’
Hunter nodded. ‘Laura and her mother were close. They called or met each other almost every other day. The last time they talked was on the 2nd of this month. A Wednesday. That was just a couple of days after the last night of Laura’s latest exhibition in a gallery in West Hollywood. Her mother tried to contact her again on the 5th, and that’s when alarm bells started ringing.’
‘In between the 2nd and the 5th?’ Garcia said, his eyes narrowing. ‘That’s around two weeks ago.’
Hunter drew a deep breath and his expression hardened. ‘And if she was taken by the killer . . .’ He didn’t complete his thought, allowing the gravity of his suggestion to simply hang in the air.
‘Shit!’ Garcia said in realization. ‘She was killed yesterday. If the same person who killed her also kidnapped her, it means he kept her hostage for two weeks.’
Hunter walked towards the sleeping area.
‘Have Missing Persons been through here?’
‘Yes, Detective Alex Peterson, from the West Bureau was in charge of the investigation,’ Hunter confirmed, opening the drawer on the bedside table – a sleeping eye mask, two cherry-flavored Chapsticks, a small pen flashlight and a packet of Tic Tacs. ‘I’ve already got in touch with him and explained that the case has now escalated to a homicide investigation. He said he didn’t have much, but he’ll send us everything he’s got. He found her laptop on the sofa in the living area. They’ve processed it but got only her fingerprints.’
‘How about the files in the hard drive?’
Hunter tilted his head to one side. ‘It’s password protected. The computer is with the Information Technology Division, but there was no urgent request until I talked to them a few minutes ago, so nothing yet.’
They checked her wardrobe – several dresses, a few of them designer, jeans, T-shirts, blouses, jackets and a substantial collection of shoes and handbags. In the kitchen Hunter checked the fridge, the cupboards, and the trash can. Nothing out of the ordinary. They moved to the living area and Hunter spent a few minutes looking through the photos and the book titles on the shelf unit next to the sofa before making his way into the studio.
Laura Mitchell was a lyrical abstractionist painter, and her work consisted mostly of collections of colors and shapes loosely applied to canvases. The studio floor was littered by a rainbow of paint splashes – almost a work of modern art in itself. Tens of finished paintings were organized against the west wall. Spread around the main working space were three canvas stands, two of them covered by once-white sheets. The third one, occupying a center position, held a thirty-six-by-twenty-four-inch semi-completed painting. Hunter studied it for a few moments before lifting the sheets from the other two stands. Both paintings also appeared unfinished.
Garcia took his time looking through some of the completed canvases resting against the wall.
‘I never understood modern art, you know.’
‘What do you mean?’ Hunter asked.
‘Look at this painting.’ He stepped out of the way so Hunter could take a look. It was another thirty-six-by-twenty-four-inch canvas displaying pastel green and orange colors surrounded by vibrant red and a touch of blue and yellow. To Garcia the colors seemed to have no co-ordination.
‘What about it?’
‘Well, this is named “Lost men in a forest of giant trees”.’
Hunter raised an eyebrow.
‘Exactly. I see no men, there is no forest and nothing on it resembles a tree.’ He shook his head. ‘Go figure.’
Hunter smiled and walked over to the large window on the left of the studio. Locked from the inside. He looked around the studio again before frowning and returning to the bedroom where he rechecked Laura’s wardrobe.
‘Did you find something?’ Garcia asked while he watched Hunter move purposefully into the bathroom.