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It had been a mad dance. He'd pressed his body against hers, backing her against the tall chain-link fence. Behind her the Mississippi ran like a black artery in the moonlight. Terror radiated through her body and drained it of strength, muddled and paralyzed her brain. She could hear him softly chanting her name: "Danielle, Danielle, Danielle ..." With a breathless reverence, as if it were part of a religious ritual. She'd never dreamed he might be capable of this. Never!
She saw the glint of moonlight on the knife and struggled to speak. His body drew away from hers and the blade flashed sideways, leaving a cold trace of steel along her throat. Odd, she was sitting on the ground now, resting her back against the sagging fence. Something warm lay in her lap. He was smiling down at her, still holding the knife, and she understood that her throat was cut and he'd backed away from her before the flash of the knife so he wouldn't get blood on his clothes. She tried to plead with him but couldn't suck in air. Her mouth formed a rictus and she could feel the useless bellows action of her lungs. Her hands fluttered to her throat and she touched the horrible horizontal gap, and her heart exploded with panic. Yet a tiny cold part of her brain remained amazingly calm and objective. Music floated from inside the building as her heels beat wildly against the blacktop, out of time, she noticed inanely, feeling herself drifting, weakening.
She was aware of him pushing her the rest of the way down, then rolling her body on its side so her blood ran along a slight incline toward the river, away from him. Very efficient, he was, as if he'd done this many times before and had plenty of practice. Her cheek pressed numbly against the hard ground, she watched the dark spreading flow with a sad detachment, letting its slow current draw her into greater darkness.CHAPTER 2
She heard a shriek and she was falling.
Two ... three—awake!
Mary reached out a shaking hand, groping for the alarm clock. Its intermittent electronic scream was shredding her brain like jagged glass. Finally she found the clock, fumbled with its cool plastic case, and managed to silence it.
Reaching for it made her side ache where Jake had hit her last night. Pain zapped through her like high voltage, and she wondered if he'd cracked one of her ribs. It had happened once before, a year ago, and she was sure the doctors in emergency at Incarnate Word hadn't believed her story about slipping and falling on the ice. Not a lot of imagination in that one.
Well, it wasn't their business anyway. Her business. Hers and Jake's. Intimate as her dreams.
Mary Arlington had dreamed again she was flying. Soaring near the lovely domed ceiling of a limitless room, almost touching pure curved whiteness, one ... two ... three, to waltz time, two ... three.... Floating in someone's arms. It wasn't clear whose. Far below, faces strained upward, pale ovals with dark, staring eyes and gaping mouths, watching her trace elegant patterns whose lines might extend into eternity.
But morning had arrived. She worked her way up so she was leaning back in bed, supported on her elbows, then she slowly swiveled her body and dropped her legs into space, struggling until she was sitting slumped on the edge of the mattress. More pain. She heard herself groan, but the rib didn't act up. Hey, the day was starting right.
Mary moved her hands slowly and gingerly beneath her nightgown, gliding fingertips over smooth flesh, seeking sources of pain.
They'd argued last night about the latest of Jake's unexplained absences. This one had lasted three days and two nights. He'd told her he'd spent the time at the big Victorian house three of his buddies leased in the suburb of Webster Groves, and she knew he did go there at times, paying rent for one of the upper bedrooms. What he had no explanation for was the long-term airport parking ticket stub she'd found in his pocket. This time maybe he'd left St. Louis, not just driven a few miles to Webster Groves.
Jake had worked himself to a high pitch of anger. Then he'd beaten her with the flat of his hand and then his fists.
This morning, early, he'd kissed her ear and whispered he was sorry, he loved her, he'd gotten carried away with the physical stuff. He'd make it up to her, he promised, he really would. Uh-huh.
"Don't come back," she'd told him, her voice hoarse from sleep. "Not this time!"
"Sure," he said, and kissed her again. "Whatever you say, Mary. Don't I usually try to make you happy?"
Only wanting him to leave, she hadn't answered. Finally she heard and felt him roll out of bed. The bedsprings moaned as if sharing her pain.
She'd lain awake listening to the roar of the shower, then to Jake thumping around her apartment getting dressed. He was supposed to meet some guys from work this morning. To go fishing, he'd said. Jake and his buddies; sometimes they were like a living beer commercial.
When she'd heard the door snick! close behind him, she'd fallen asleep again.
That was two hours ago, and here she sat with a numb mind and aching body.
Jake would be guilt-plagued, remorseful even in the way he moved. For days he'd loathe himself for what he'd done, an object of scathing self-pity. And, in Mary's eyes, a man pinned by his agony, writhing in pain as intense as hers even if it wasn't physical.
Others didn't understand, she knew, and wondered why she stayed with Jake. But the abuse had grown gradually, creeping up on her love, engulfing it and leaving it whole and somehow undamaged, like the tender walnut, safe within its confining yet protective shell.
That was the problem, she loved Jake.
And she had no one else.
But she knew she had to be strong. This time she meant it, he wasn't coming back. She wouldn't let him.
She drew a deep breath, without pain, and stood up, leaning with a hand on the headboard for a moment while her dizziness passed. She had to leave for work in half an hour, and she had a dance lesson right after supper.
She hoped like hell she could move okay. Tonight was tango.CHAPTER 3
They knew Jonas Morrisy in the parish. The honest merchants, the con artists, the whores, the gays, the blues and Cajun musicians, and the grifters; they knew him and played straight with him, because he played straight with them. If he said he'd crack skull if they didn't cooperate, he meant it, always. He'd been a beat patrolman there for twelve years before making sergeant, ridden in a two-man patrol car for five more years before becoming plainclothes. Now, at fifty, he was a New Orleans P.D. homicide lieutenant. The cop everyone had known twenty years ago hadn't changed: He was tough, shrewd, and persistent. And still honest.
He sat now behind his wide, cluttered desk in his office in Homicide, a sloppily dressed, shambling man sucking on a meerschaum pipe he never lit. His gray eyes were as bright and calculating as when he was a rookie, even if now there were crow's feet at their corners. His hair was almost completely gray but still thick and unruly, and his lower lip still jutted determinedly. Perched on an off-center nose, the no-nonsense black-framed glasses suggested he was a man of decisiveness and violence. Thick and scarred knuckles added to the impression.
In his big hands he was holding a copy of the medical examiner's report on the Verlane woman. Detective Sergeant Waxman, who'd just handed him the report, was standing in front of Morrisy's desk, neatly dressed as usual, his tie knot the size of a pea, his suitcoat buttoned despite the river delta heat and humidity that the air-conditioner wasn't quite coping with today.
"Something, eh, Lieutenant?" Waxman said. He was a lean, handsome man with sleekly combed red hair, built for the expensive clothes he wore. Sometimes Morrisy wondered where he got the money to dress so well, but he never asked.
Morrisy grunted and read on. Something, all right. There'd been so much blood at the crime scene he hadn't realized the extent or nature of the injuries. Except for the horrendous slash across the victim's throat.
"Weird, huh?" Waxman asked, still searching for a reaction.
Morrisy laid the file folder on his desk and looked out the window at the buildings across the street. Fat gray clouds were building up. Rain clouds. Rain this time of year wouldn't do a thing to break the heat, only add steam to the recipe for misery. He said, "We don't tell the husband the worst part, or the media."
"I'm assuming hubby might already know," Waxman said. "A certain bell doesn't ring with that guy."
"Maybe. But we need to keep this from him just in case, and keep the media in the dark on it, 'specially those TV jerkoffs. That way it'll be our card to play when we bring in a suspect."
Waxman's heavily lidded eyes flicked to the folder on the desk, back to Morrisy. "I been in Homicide a long time, Lieutenant, and I never seen that kinda thing."
"That's why it's such a good hole card." It was standard procedure in a homicide investigation to hold back a few pieces of crucial or defining evidence that only the police and the killer would know. It made it easier to obtain accurate statements and helped nail down convictions.
"The media'd love it," Waxman said.
Morrisy nodded. "Wouldn't they?"
"They already like the fact she was out doing the light fantastic with men she barely knew, dressed the way she was, maybe asking for it, you know?"
"It doesn't hurt that they like it," Morrisy said. This was still the deep South, and a prime piece like Danielle Verlane out slutting it up even though she was married, then paying for her transgressions with her life, made especially juicy copy. Straight out of the Old Testament, far as the news media were concerned. They could moralize their guts out over this one. And if they knew the rest, the nightmare part, it would really play like crazy. Morrisy prided himself on being adept when it came to dealing with news people, using them instead of the other way around. He was determined that would be the way it went on this case. "Any word on the prints?"
"Too smudged to mean anything, lab report says."
Morrisy leaned back in his chair and sucked air through his dead pipe, making a soft whistling sound. Though he hadn't fired up the old meerschaum since his doctor had warned him to stop smoking six months ago, he could still smell and taste tobacco when he breathed through the tooth-dented stem. And in his mind he could still smell, and even taste, the thick coppery stench of blood at the Verlane murder site. The nicotine smell helped to make that less repellent, had allowed him to eat a big breakfast of eggs and grits this morning.
He thought about the husband, Rene. Maybe Waxman was right and the guy was good for the murder. Important guy, but not so important he was too big for Morrisy to go after. Just the right size, in fact. Plenty of publicity, but not much career liability. If the press could be played right. Used.
Which it could be. Oh, yeah, it could be, all right.
"Bring me the statements of the customers in the lounge," he said to Waxman, "then we're gonna go talk to some people."
Waxman flashed his handsome smile and strode out the door into the squad room. Morrisy knew he'd order the unmarked car brought around on his way to get the computer printouts of the witness statements. He could count on Waxman. They made an efficient team because they thought a lot alike.
That's what it would take to nail the bastard that did the Verlane bitch, Morrisy thought, teamwork. This was no ordinary murder.
But then, he was no ordinary cop. He'd proved that over and over.
He could prove it again.CHAPTER 4
Nose follows toes.
Her instructor, Mel Holt, had told Mary to think of that when she danced in promenade position. Mel was leading her through tango promenade turns now, gliding over the smooth wood floor. Her back was straight, pelvis thrust forward, knees slightly bent; she was tight up against Mel, and her body responded to his every move as he drove forward with long, stalking steps: slow, slow, quick, quick, and sloooow. She closed her frame, spinning neatly to face him on the second slow count and trailing a leg, her skirt swinging gracefully. She loved to dance, but she especially loved to tango.
Her left side had ached at first, where Jake hit her too hard, even though she'd stood for almost half an hour under a hot shower before coming to the studio. But after warming up with swing and fox-trot before the lesson, the pain went away and she was moving loosely and in time to the music. Dead on the beat.
At work, Victor the realist had noticed the darkness beneath her left eye this morning. He shook his head, causing his round, wire-rimmed glasses to slip down on the bridge of his nose and give him his nerdy Ben Franklin look. He knew Jake must have been at her again. Victor should mind his own business.
As Mel led her through a series of turns, she glanced in the mirrors lining the studio walls. In Mel's arms was a medium-height, dark-haired woman with narrow, symmetrical features, delicate yet not without strength. She was still attractive though with a gauntness she feared might soon take on a pinched, hard quality. Her lean body moved elegantly (if she did say so herself), bending back gracefully now in a corte. Mel closed the step and swept her toward the center of the floor. If he'd noticed the bluish circle beneath her eye, caked now with disguising makeup, he hadn't said anything.
But Mel wouldn't. No one at Romance Dance Studio would. That sort of comment wasn't meant to be part of this world. Among other things, what students bought here was a carefully controlled alternate reality.
Promenade turn again. She snapped her head around. The head was so important in tango.
For an instant she was again staring at herself in the mirror, but this time caught by surprise, as if she were a stranger noticed gazing through a window. Her mouth was set in a grim slash of concentration, her dark eyes burning. Then she composed her features, the way people do before mirrors. Mel—tall, loose-jointed Mel—was smiling absently as he drew her even closer and whirled her into another turn, then a flare.
When she was dancing she forgot about Jake, about everything but music and motion. And Mel. They'd been dancing together for almost two years, and she sensed his leads sometimes even before he began them. The world outside the studio was chaotic and threatening, but here, inside, were design and beauty and the ages-old marriage of pattern and grace.
The Latin music came to an abrupt stop. Something with a loud, simple four-four beat began to play. Kevin, another instructor, and his student June, began doing triple-time swing over by the stereo tape deck.
"Oh well, time's up anyway," Mel said, stepping away from Mary.
She knew he was right. The wall clock indicated her hour lesson actually should have ended five minutes ago.
As she walked off the dance floor with Mel she noticed Kevin leading June, who was a fifty-year-old widow, through a series of underarm turns. June had regained her figure with a liquid diet and looked like a slender teenager spinning out to the end of Kevin's reach, then rock-stepping back into dance position. Mary figured June had signed up for lessons so she could meet men. Well, nothing wrong with that.
"We got a lesson booked for Thursday?" Mel asked, as they stepped onto soft carpet.
Mary nodded. "Seven o'clock."
He grinned, handsome and easy and so at home in the world. "See you then."
As he started to walk away, he turned; he even did that as if he were dancing. "By the way, you planning on competing in Miami next month? We could still pencil you in for extra lessons and get you ready."
"No, not Miami," Mary said. She had a well-paying job, but it was formidably costly to compete. "Maybe Ohio in November," she told Mel, who was standing there looking as boyishly hopeful as if he'd just asked her to the prom.
He seemed so crushed. "Aw, I'm sorry you can't make the Dancerama in Miami—" he suddenly brightened—"but we'll start working to get ready for Ohio. Can I consider you committed to go?"
Mary shook her head no, a little flustered. She had to build her savings if she was going to the Ohio Star Ball in Columbus, the most prestigious of the competitions held around the country. "I'll let you know, Mel. I've gotta look at my finances."
"Hey, that I understand." He grinned and squeezed her arm. "See you next time, Mary."
Still smiling, he turned away from her.
Excerpted from Dancing with the Dead by John Lutz. Copyright © 1992 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 3, 2011
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