Authors: Chris Carter
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery
Garcia knew Hunter would take his time, looking at every possible detail inside the shop.
‘I’m gonna head back and see what I can do with the crime-scene photos and the Missing Persons database. As you said, our priority is in identifying who she was.’
Hunter nodded and stepped out of the car.
The foul smell seemed to have intensified threefold as Hunter flashed his badge at the officer and entered the shop for the second time that evening.
As the door shut behind him, Hunter was left in pitch-black darkness. He clicked his flashlight on and felt a surge of adrenalin rush through his body. Every step was accompanied by the crunching of glass or the squelching sound of something moist under his feet. He moved on past the old meat display counter and approached the door at the back. As he got closer, Hunter heard the buzzing of flies.
This new room was spacious and linked the front of the store to the small freezer-room at the back. Hunter paused by the door, struggling with the putrid stench. His stomach was begging him to leave, threatening to erupt at any moment and causing him to gag and cough violently a few times. His surgical mask was having little effect.
He slowly allowed the beam of his flashlight to move around the room. Two oversized metal sinks sat against the far wall. To their right was an empty floor-to-ceiling storage module. Rats moved freely on its shelves.
Hunter screwed up his face.
‘There had to be rats,’ he cursed under his breath. He hated rats.
In an instant his mind took him back to when he was eight years old.
On his way back from school, two older kids stopped him and took his Batman lunchbox from him. The lunch-box had been a birthday present from his mother a year earlier, just months before cancer robbed him of her. It was his most prized possession.
After taunting Hunter for a while by throwing the lunch-box back and forth to each other, the two bullies kicked it down an open manhole.
‘Go get it, deaf boy.’
Hunter’s mother’s death was devastating for him and his father, and coping with its aftermath proved particularly difficult. For several weeks, as her disease progressed, Hunter sat alone in his room, listening to her desperate cries, feeling her pain as if it was his own. When she finally passed away, Hunter started experiencing severe loss of hearing. It was his body’s psychosomatic way of shutting off the grief. His temporary deafness made Hunter an even easier target to the bullies. To escape being cast aside even more, he’d learned to lip-read by himself. Within two years, with the same ease that it had gone away, his hearing came back.
‘You better go get it, deaf boy,’ the bigger of the two bullies repeated.
Hunter didn’t even hesitate, hurrying down the metal ladder as if his life depended on it. That was exactly what the bullies wanted him to do. They pushed the lid back over the manhole and walked away, laughing.
Hunter found the lunchbox down at the bottom and made his way back up the ladder, but no matter how hard he tried, he just didn’t have the physical strength to push the lid aside. Instead of panicking, he went back down to the sewage passageways. If he couldn’t get out the same way he went in, he’d simply have to find another way out.
In semi-darkness, clenching his lunchbox tight to his chest, he started down the tunnel. He’d traveled only about fifty yards through filthy, stinking sewage water when he felt something drop from the ceiling onto his back and tug at his shirt. Reflexively, he reached for it, grabbed it and threw it as far away from him as he could. As it hit the water behind him, it squeaked, and Hunter finally saw what it was.
A rat as big as his lunchbox.
Hunter held his breath and slowly turned to face the wall to his right. It was alive with rats of every shape and size.
He started shivering.
Very carefully, he turned around and faced the wall to his left. Even more rats. And he could swear all their eyes were locked on him.
Hunter didn’t think, he simply ran as fast as he could, splashing water high in the air with every step. A hundred and fifty yards ahead he came to a metal ladder that led him to another manhole. Again, the lid would not budge. He returned to the passageway and carried on running. Another two hundred yards, another manhole, and Hunter finally hit a little luck. At the top, the lid was half on, half off. With his skinny body, he had no problem squeezing through the gap.
Hunter still had the Batman lunchbox his mother had given him. And ever since then, rats had made him very uneasy.
Now, Hunter pushed the memory away, bringing his attention back to the butcher’s shop back room. The only other piece of furniture in it was the stainless steel counter where the victim’s naked body had been laid out. It was positioned about six feet from the open freezer-room door on the back wall. Hunter studied the counter from a distance for a long while. There was something odd about it. It was way too high off the ground. When he checked the floor, he found that bricks had been placed under each of its four legs, elevating the counter another foot to foot and a half.
Just like the crime-scene photos showed, the floor was littered with dirty rags, used condoms and discarded syringes. Hunter moved inside, taking short steps, carefully checking the floor before each one. The temperature in the room seemed to be at least five degrees higher than outside, and he felt sweat trickling down the small of his back. As he approached the stainless steel counter, the buzzing noise coming from the flies got louder.
Despite the flies, the nauseating smell and the melting heat, Hunter took his time. He knew the Forensics team had done the best job they could, but crime scenes could offer a lot more than simple physical evidence. And Hunter had a gift when it came to understanding them.
He carefully circled the metal counter for the fifth time. The main question swimming around in his mind was whether the victim had died in that room, or whether the butcher’s shop had been nothing more than a simple dumping ground.
Hunter decided to take the victim’s place.
He hopped onto the metal counter before lying down in the exact position the victim had been found and switching off his flashlight. He kept absolutely still, allowing the sounds, the smell, the heat, and the darkness of the room to envelop him. His shirt was clinging to his body, wet with sweat. From the photographs, he remembered the look in her eyes, the horror expression frozen on her face.
He switched on his flashlight but remained in the same position, his eyes taking in the graffiti that adorned the entire ceiling.
A moment later, something caught his eye. He squinted and sat up. His gaze locked onto the ceiling directly above the metal counter. The realization came in three seconds flat and his eyes widened.
Katia Kudrov stepped out of her bathtub and wrapped a fluffy white towel around her shoulder-length black hair. Scented candles illuminated her luxurious bathroom in the penthouse of an exclusive apartment block in West Hollywood. The candles helped her relax. And tonight she wanted nothing more than to unwind.
Katia had just finished her first American tour as the principal violinist concertmistress with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Sixty-five concerts in as many cities in seventy days. The tour had been a tremendous success, but the grueling schedule had left her exhausted. She was looking forward to a well-deserved break.
Music found its way into Katia’s life at a very early age, when she was only four. She remembered vividly sitting on her grandfather’s lap while he tried to rock her to sleep to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s
Violin Concerto in D Major.
Instead of falling asleep, she fell in love with the sounds she heard. The next day, her grandfather gave Katia her first violin. But Katia wasn’t a natural, far from it. For years her parents endured the agonizing and ear-piercing noises of her long practice sessions. But she was dedicated, determined and hard-working, and eventually she began playing music that could make the angels smile. After a long spell in Europe, she had come back to LA thirteen months ago after being offered the concertmistress seat with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Katia stepped out of the bathroom, paused in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, and studied her reflection. Her features were nearly perfect – large brown eyes, a small nose, high cheekbones and full lips that framed a faultless smile. At thirty, she still had the body of a high-school cheerleader. She checked her profile, sucking her stomach in for several seconds before deciding that she’d gained a small potbelly. Probably from all the junk food she ate at the many cocktail parties she’d had to attend during the tour. Katia shook her head in disapproval.
‘Back on the diet and in the gym from tomorrow,’ she whispered to herself, reaching for her pink bathrobe.
The cordless phone on her bedside table rang and she looked at it dubiously. Not many people had her home number.
‘Hello,’ she finally answered after the fifth ring, and could swear she heard a second click on the line, as if someone had picked up the extension in her study, living room or kitchen.
‘How’s my favorite superstar?’
Katia smiled. ‘Hi Dad.’
‘Hi there, baby. So how was the tour?’
‘Fantastic, but extremely exhausting.’
‘I bet. I read the reviews. Everyone loves you.’
Katia smiled. ‘I’m so looking forward to two weeks of no rehearsals, no concerts, and certainly no parties.’ She made her way out of her bedroom and onto the mezzanine that overlooked her spacious living room.
‘But you have some time for your old man, right?’
‘I always have time for you when I’m not touring, Dad. You’re the one who’s always so busy, remember?’ she challenged.
He chuckled. ‘OK, OK, don’t rub it in. I’ll tell you what. I can tell you’re tired by your voice, how about you have an early night and we catch up over lunch tomorrow?’
Katia hesitated. ‘What are we talking about here, Dad? One of your quick “I gotta go, let’s grab a sandwich” deals, or a proper sit-down, three-course, no-cells-allowed lunch?’
Leonid Kudrov was one of the most famous film producers in the USA. His lunch engagements usually never lasted more than thirty minutes, which Katia knew well.
There was a small pause and this time Katia was sure she heard a click on the line. ‘Dad, are you still there?’
‘I’m here, baby. And I’ll take option number two, please.’
‘I mean it, Dad. If we’re having a proper lunch, there’ll be no phone calls, and you’re not rushing away after half an hour.’
‘No cells, I promise. I’ll clear my afternoon schedule. And you can pick the restaurant.’
Katia’s smile was more animated this time. ‘OK. How about we meet at Mastro’s Steak House in Beverly Hills at one o’clock?’
‘Great choice,’ her father agreed. ‘I’ll make the reservation.’
‘And you won’t be late, will you, Dad?’
‘Of course not, honey. You’re my superstar, remember? Look, I gotta go. An important call just came in.’
Katia shook her head. ‘What a surprise.’
‘Have a good sleep, darling. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘See you tomorrow, Dad.’ She rang off and placed the receiver in her bathrobe pocket.
Taking the stairs down to the living room, Katia made her way into the kitchen. She felt like having a glass of wine, something to relax her even more. She selected a bottle of Sancerre from the fridge. As she fumbled inside one of the worktop drawers for the corkscrew, the phone in her pocket rang again.
‘How’s my favorite superstar?’
‘Oh please, tell me you’re not cancelling on me already, Dad?’ Katia wasn’t impressed.
Katia suddenly realized that the voice at the other end of the line wasn’t her father’s. ‘Who is this?’
‘Not your daddy.’
‘Phillip, is that you?’
Phillip Stein was the new conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Katia’s latest affair. They’d been seeing each other for four months, but three days before the end of the tour they’d gotten into a heated argument. Phillip had fallen head over heels for Katia, and wanted her to move in with him. Katia liked Phillip and she had enjoyed their affair, but certainly not with the same intensity as he did. She wasn’t ready for that type of commitment, not now. She had hinted at the idea that maybe they should take a few days off from seeing each other – just to see how things panned out. Phillip hadn’t taken the suggestion well, throwing a tantrum and conducting the worst concerto of his career that night. They hadn’t spoken since.
‘Phillip? Who’s Phillip? Is that your boyfriend?’ the voice asked.
‘Who is this?’ she asked again, firmer this time.
An uncomfortable sensation made the hairs on the back of Katia’s neck stand on end. ‘Look, I think you dialed the wrong number.’
‘I don’t think so.’ The man chuckled. ‘I’ve been dialing this number every day for the past two months.’