Crystal was still sleeping, her breathing ragged and heavy as she tossed on the futon and moaned almost rhythmically. It seemed her craving for the meth was becoming more intense. Eventually she would wake up and go out into the streets, looking for someone to supply what she needed. And, in spite of Billy Simpson murder, she would find that someone.
Did I really want to put in the time and effort necessary to discover what was happening in her life? Did I want to stand between Crystal and whoever hunted her? After all, it wasn’t my job. The cops could handle this—it was what they were trained to do, what they were paid to do. Besides, I had something else to put my time in on, no matter how short that time might be. Something I was committed to.
But one of those who hunted her might be a cop, and Chester had sent her to me. And the .44 would always be there if I needed it.
I glanced at my watch. It was nearly six p.m. I got up, showered and changed into my three-piece suit and fedora, then tucked the .44 into my overcoat pocket.
Frank was at the piano, where I’d found him the night before. He had finished setting out his music and was running a few scales. As soon as he saw me he began Stardust.
I left the bar without ordering a drink and went to the elevator in the lobby. Again panic jolted me as the elevator car took me down into the lower level of the parking garage, and again I fought it and won.
There were more cars than there had been the night before. It was earlier in the evening, and the hotel’s two restaurants were still busy. I wove between the cars, to the same rear corner where Frank and I had met the night before.
A pink Hummer? I thought, leaning against the Hummer 3. That didn’t make sense.
The Hummer’s alarm blared, startling me, and I jumped away. After a few seconds the alarm stopped and I leaned on the black pickup truck beside the pink car.
Frank stepped from the elevator after fewer than two minutes. He, too, zigzagged through the parked cars, pulling a cigarette from his ever-present pack as he made his way to the corner.
He almost leaned against the Hummer, but I pulled him away and he leaned against the pickup beside me. “Alarm,” I said.
I nodded toward the Hummer. “What the hell’s this all about?”
Frank put the pack back in his inside coat pocket and smiled. “There’s a Mary Kay convention in the hotel. Started today.”
“Their incentives have certainly increased in value.”
“You can say that again.” He lit his cigarette.
“Shouldn’t you have played a set before coming down?”
“It’ll be alright.” He took a long pull on his cigarette, then exhaled the smoke. “I have something for you.”
“I talked to an old partner, Roger Elliot. He’s running Homicide these days, and he said there’ve been three similar crime scenes within the past week and a half.”
“There wasn’t anything in the papers.”
“And there won’t be. That’s not the kind of detail the police want to get out.”
The cops always held out a number of details from the media, just to weed out the inevitable loonies who always confessed to something they didn’t do. And the fact that there was a serial killer loose in Denver would certainly freak the city’s population. The cops didn’t want to start a panic.
“Any idea who the other victims were?”
“None yet. Like Billy, each was stabbed once in the stomach and once in the chest, then their hands and heads were pounded beyond recognition. It does look like they were homeless, though. Their clothing pegged them as such, at any rate."
“Maybe not. Billy wasn’t wearing his usual attire last night.”
I let Frank take another pull on his cigarette, then said, “What are the cops doing about it?”
“They’re asking questions around the homeless community. One of the victims had been hanging out on the Sixteenth Street Mall for a few months. Name was Bob—no last name. No one seems to know the other two.”
Frank took another long drag. A cloud of smoke escaped as he spoke. “The cops can’t figure out what was used to do the mutilations. I don’t think it would be smart to tell them what you know just now.”
“No. If the cops get anything....”
“Of course. I’ll keep in touch with them. You keep in touch with me. By the way, Elliot knows you’re looking into the case.”
“How does he know that?”
“I told him.”
“You did what?”
“He doesn’t know who you are, and he doesn’t know about Crystal—just that someone is looking into the killings.”
“What did he say about that?”
“He wasn’t happy. He wants you off it, whoever you are.”
“I’ll bet he does.” I turned toward the elevators. All Elliot needed was a civilian mucking around in his case, maybe even jeopardizing a conviction when they finally made an arrest.
“I agree with him,” Frank called at my back. “These guys are dangerous.”
It was nearly seven-thirty by the time I left the Hilton. I wasn’t sure Chester would still be in his office at Holy Sacrament, but I thought I’d take a chance on finding him there. I caught the shuttle up the mall, then walked the six blocks north-east to the church.
Chester wasn’t in, but his assistant, Father Groff, was in Chester’s office, making an attempt at tidying up. He was totally bald, nearly as tall as I am, and heavy to the point of being obese. His black suit and priest’s collar somehow made him look heavier than he actually was.
“Where’s Chester?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t get in until after lunch. He wasn’t here.” His voice was shaky—he was nervous about something.
“Was he supposed to be in today?”
“Yes, he was. We were supposed to go over the parish books tonight, going to be at it until ten or midnight. I’m starting to get worried.”
“Was he at the rectory last night?”
The priest nodded. “He left early this morning for the church.”
“Did you two talk before he left?”
“And he didn’t say anything about not coming to the church?”
“Have you tried calling him on his cell phone?”
“All day. He hasn’t answered.”
I nodded. “If he comes in, tell him I was by. I’ll call him later. If I can’t reach him, do you have a cell?”
He gave me his number. I took it down on the back of one of the many scraps of paper on Chester’s desk. I stood, folded the scrap and stuffed it into my front trousers pocket, turned toward the door, then turned back around and faced the priest.
“Was the back door unlocked when you came in this afternoon?”
“Yes, it was.”
“That means he was here earlier.”
“That’s right,” Groff said. “I didn’t think of that.”
Rather than make an early night of it, like I knew I should, I decided to visit Schroeder’s, a bar in the Capitol Hill district, less than a mile from the heart of downtown Denver and my apartment. The walk was crisp but pleasant.
The sign outside the door showed Schroeder, from the Peanuts comic strip. He was playing his piano—all in neon.
I had frequented the bar at least two nights each week for the past two years. It was another piano club, but one in which the owner allowed his patrons to sing. Each pianist supplied two thick three-ring binders filled with lyrics. Only a few of the regulars were any good.
I never sang solo. Although I knew I had a good enough voice—everyone told me I did. I was just a bit too self-conscious for that. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to remain as much in the shadows as I could, and old habits are simply too hard to break. At least for me they are.
Still, I was known in Schroeder’s as someone who appreciated good music, and I did participate in the sing-along numbers on a few occasions. And during the past month or so I had actually started to sing out. Each of Schroeder’s five pianists was trying to bring me along.
“John!” the current pianist called out from behind the baby grand as I entered. “Good to see you.”
I nodded. He was short and balding, about fifty years of age, sporting a scraggily beard and mustache, with a good-natured twinkle in his intensely blue eyes. He wore a red satin coat he’d bragged about picking up on sale for only thirty-five dollars less than a month ago at a boutique store downtown. His name was Michael Quinn.
Quinn was accustomed to my not talking much. In fact, everyone in Schroeder’s was. Not only am I an extremely private person, but you never know when some small bit of information you give out might be used against you.
A narrow bar hugged the piano’s contours, and I sat at a stool directly across from Quinn. There was a couple to his right—my left—Rich and Linda. A man in a ball cap and a goatee sat to Quinn’s left. His name was Ken, and he occasionally brought in a violin to play with the pianist. The regulars nodded and smiled, and I nodded in return.
Another man sat two stools to my right, between Ken and me. I’d never seen him before. He was short, with a stocky build, dressed in black slacks and a dark blue polo shirt. He sat on his black winter jacket, his head down, a nearly empty Coors bottle on the bar before him.
The waitress, a dark-haired Greek girl in her early twenties, took my order for a Jack Daniels on the rocks and a Bud Light. She asked the man to my right if he wanted another beer, and he said he didn’t. Then she hurried away.
I glanced up at the large-screen television on the wall to my left. Two NFL teams battled it out. Neither was the Bronco’s, so I ignored the game and again glanced at the man to my right.
“Who you lookin’ at?” he said in a gravelly voice.
I shrugged. “How’s it going?”
“’Till you walked in, it was goin’ just fine?” he said.
I shrugged again, then returned my attention to the television screen. I didn’t know what his problem was, but I didn’t want trouble. Not here. Not tonight.
“You ignorin’ me?” the man asked. When I didn’t respond, he hammered the bar with his fist and snarled, “You hear me?”
I took my attention slowly from the screen, centering my gaze on the man. “I heard you,” I said. “I don’t have a beef with you.” Again I looked to the television.
“Maybe I have a beef with you. You ever think of that?”
Without turning from the screen, I said, “Leave me alone.”
“You want me to leave you alone, do you? I’ll show you how I’m goin’ to leave you alone!”
He got to his feet as I again looked in his direction, and his stool went over behind him. Taking two swift steps toward me, he threw a round-house right directed at my head.
My reflexes took over. I blocked his punch with my right hand without getting off my stool. In nearly the same motion I took his fist in my left hand and squeezed. He grimaced, but didn’t make a sound.
“I’m not sure you want to do this,” I said. “One of us might get hurt.”
“That’s pretty much what I planned,” he said, trying to pull his fist from my hand. It wasn’t going anywhere.
I kept my voice low and even. “It won’t be me who gets hurt.” I released his fist and pushed him in the chest.
He tumbled over his downed stool and fell to the floor. Struggling to get up, he became tangled in the stool. The look on his face told me he meant to try again.
“I wouldn’t,” I said, soft and low.
He stopped struggling with the bar stool, then slowly stood. “You haven’t seen the last of me,” he said, glaring. He strode stiff-legged from the bar. The door slammed behind him.
“What was that all about?” the pianist asked. He’d stopped playing as soon as the confrontation began.
“I don’t know. How long has he been here?”
“Forty, forty-five minutes.”
“Not long enough to get drunk, unless he started somewhere else.”
Quinn shook his head. “He was sober when he walked in, and he nursed that one beer like a newborn the whole time.”
“Do you know him?”
“Said he’s a Denver cop. First name’s Barry, I think. That’s all I know.”
Barry. That was the name Chester had been given at the church by the cop who’d questioned him about Crystal.
“You know his last name?”
“How often does he come in here?”
Quinn shook his head. “This is the first time I’ve seen him. He described you, though, and knew your name. And he was asking questions about you.”
“What kind of questions?”
“He wanted to know how often you come in, and asked if you live around here.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing, really. I said you live somewhere in the area, but I didn’t know where—which I don’t. And I told him you come in a couple nights a week.”
I nodded, then asked Rich and Linda if they had seen him before. They hadn’t. I asked Ken.
“Not in here,” he said. “But I think I might have seen him a couple times in The Charger.” The Charger Lounge was a dive bar three blocks south and two east of Schroeder’s.
I nodded my thanks. It was too late to go to The Charger tonight. Besides, I was over-dressed for that sort of bar. I’d have to check it out in the next day or two.
Here, in Schroeder’s, I would have to come in more than the two nights a week I was accustomed to for a while. Five pianists played through the week. Michael played the early shift, 6:00 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday and Friday. Paul, a blind man with incredible talent, played the Tuesday early shift, and Marianne the Thursday early shift. The Saturday early shift belonged to Ray, and Patrick played the late shift, from 9:30 to closing, Tuesday through Saturday. Sunday was karaoke night, which drew a younger crowd, and Monday there was no entertainment. I’d have to check with each pianist, the owner and the manager, and any regulars I happened across. I’d also have to come in Sunday to see if the guy took in karaoke, although I doubted that was the case, and Monday, too.
I hung around Schroeder’s another couple hours and caught Patrick as he came on-shift. In the process, I had a few more Jack Daniels, matched with an equal number of beers. I described the guy who’d jumped me to Patrick, but he couldn’t remember seeing him.
On my way home I stop at a pay phone on the mall and called the cell number Father Groff had given me. He answered after two rings.
“Have you heard from Chester yet?” I blew into my hands as I cradled the receiver between my shoulder and my ear. The wind was hard and cutting, adding a great deal to the chill factor.
“No,” Groff said, “I haven’t. And I’m getting worried.”
“Did you try his cell phone again?”
“I have, several times. Still nothing.”
I was silent for a few seconds, then said, “I’m going home. I’ll check back in the morning.”
I went through the knocking ritual twice with no response before I used my key. The door was locked, but the deadbolt wasn’t. Crystal wasn’t in the apartment. There was no sign of violence.
Probably out getting a fix, I thought. She’d looked pretty ragged the last time I saw her.
I wondered how Crystal would pay for her fix-up. I checked the money in the coffee can on the high shelf at the back of the closet—the insurance settlement from Sylvia’s death, several thousand from our joint account, and the little I made from watching the liquor store upstairs. Slightly more than a quarter of a million dollars in both small and large bills. It hadn’t been touched.
I placed the handgun beside it.
After a shower, I sat in the easy chair in my red plaid bathrobe. For just a few minutes, I told myself.
“How are you feeling?” Angel said from across the room.
“I don’t know. Mostly confused, I guess.”
“Confused about what, John?”
“About everything. About Crystal, and Billy Simpson, and Chester. But I think mostly about....” I paused, unable to say it.
Angel, however, could say it, and did. “About you wanting to commit suicide? About whether or not you should go ahead with your plans to kill yourself?”
I glanced toward the closet. Then I looked into the corner at the far side of the room. The rat’s eyes again glowed red out of the darkness.
“Yes, that’s right,” I finally said, “about my suicide.”
“Well, John, maybe it isn’t yet time for such an irreversible act. Maybe you still have too much left to do before you check out.
“Maybe,” I said. But I doubted it.