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Two weeks earlier
"Hi, Van. Working late?" A woman in a blue linen suit smiled as she passed Vanessa near the nerve center of police headquarters. "Whoa, wait a minute." She hooked a hand through Vanessa's arm. "That's awfully formal detective gear you're wearing."
"I'm off duty." Vanessa slipped out of her pinstriped jacket, baring her arms to the relative cool of the station house air. "I swear the temperature hasn't dropped five degrees since sunset."
"Uh-huh." A suspicious light entered the other woman's eyes. "You've been in court, haven't you?"
Vanessa couldn't resist a smile as she pushed through the door. "Guilty, Counselor Kruger."
"Testifying against my partner's client?"
"He robbed a credit union at closing time, Ger. He was red-faced, high, and he stabbed one of the tellers."
"With a needle."
"Which he claimed was infected with HIV. Makes it armed robbery. I was questioning the manager about another matter. I heard the threat, saw the guy who uttered it. I testified."
Geri's perky features lost their light. "I gave Ted that client so he could test his legal wings. I should have checked the witness list first." She smacked Vanessa's hip. "Who'd expect a homicide detective to be lurking around a credit union at closing time?"
"What can I say, we're unpredictable creatures."
Geri's gaze shifted. "Who's the gorgeous guy in Palmer's office?"
Vanessa swung her head to see. The captain's verticals were up, and by the light of his desk lamp she spied a tall, dark-haired man. He was dressed entirely in black and that dark hair was actually long enough to skim his shoulders. Even at a distance and behind dusty glass, his features were well, arresting was as good a description as any, she supposed, though sexy might have sprung to mind in different circumstances.
Geri smoothed her skirt. "Who is he, Van? New cop on the block? Because if he is, I'm going to be representing a lot more clients from around here. Not that it'll help me since he'll take one look at you and go blind."
"Not Medusa blind, I mean blinded by your beauty."
Vanessa grinned. "Apparently you didn't see me and three other detectives hiding in a Dumpster two weeks ago. It took five long, hot showers to get the cabbage smell out of my hair."
Sighing, Geri transferred her attention from the mystery man's face to Vanessa's. "You could sleep in a bed of cabbage every night and men would line up from here to the Mexican border to shampoo your hair. Let's do it this way. You don't want the guy, for whatever reason, tell him about this public defense lawyer you know and how she and her husband split up recently, and she's looking for a little fun." Her expression clouded. "Talking of fun, and I know the comparison sounds callous, but I heard about Deirdre Morton and Sandy Lewis."
All amusement faded. "Did you also hear about Mara Chan?"
"Oh my God, Mara, too? Where did they find her? Was she still in Hong Kong?"
"She left Hong Kong in July. She'd just moved to Houston to work for one of the airlines."
"You must be so freaked."
"Say nervous," Vanessa replied, although truthfully, it went far deeper than that.
She'd known the victims well in college. With the exception of Mara, she hadn't seen any of them for years, but that didn't diminish the haze of fear that tended to creep in whenever she lowered her guard.
"I spoke to Mara a week after she landed in Houston. We talked about going to Deirdre's funeral, then found out there wasn't going to be one, just a small family gathering in Chicago."
Geri shook her head. "From what I remember of Deirdre Morton, she liked big bashes. If her spirit's hanging around, it'll be plenty pissed off. First she's murdered behind a cheap bar, then her family gives her a subdued send-off." She laid a hand on Vanessa's arm. "No heartlessness intended, but you were tight with these women once. If you're not scared, then I will be for you. Palmer must be tearing out what's left of his hair."
Vanessa seesawed her hand. "He suggested I take a leave. When I reminded him that Sandy Lewis was killed on vacation in Scottsdale, he backed off. If someone wants me dead, Ger, he'll find me, whether I'm here in San Francisco or camping at the base of Mount Everest."
"Yes, but Everest would be a harder reach."
"I'm not running."
"I'm not surprised. I have to say, though, for the first time in my life, I'm happy to have only been part of the wannabe 'in' crowd at Berkeley. How many others were in your clique?"
A trace of irritation marred Vanessa's features. "We weren't a clique, just friends." She moved a shoulder and returned her gaze to the captain's office. "Sylvia Porter."
"Right. Can't forget her. Oh, now she was really snotty."
"Spoiled," Vanessa amended.
"To the point of rot." Geri fanned her face with her hand. "Where's she living these days?"
"Palmer's having her tracked, but there's no address on her after five years ago and no family to ask since her father died and her stepmother couldn't care less about her."
"So poor Snow White has flitted off to some unknown tropical forest to drown her sorrows in money, booze and, I'm sure, far more than seven little men."
"I thought you were happy to be part of the wannabe 'in' crowd."
"I can be bitter and happy at the same time, however, for the sake of our friendship and my nerves, I'll change the subject." She nodded forward. "Palmer's visitor has great hands. If you don't know, in some cultures, hands like his mean a man's probably really well "
She broke off as Vanessa was bumped by a passing detective.
"Captain wants to see you," the man grunted.
At his curled lip, Vanessa laughed. "Your great-hands guy must be a Fed, Geri. FBI or CIA?"
"Don't know, don't care. It's you Palmer wants, not me."
Always a sobering thought. From Geri's perspective, however, the spin was more positive.
"Great hands, great hair, great face, great body." She pushed on her stomach. "Is there a way to lose twenty pounds in five minutes?"
"Yeah, drop your briefcase. Oh, damn. Palmer's coming out." Vanessa started to turn, but checked herself. "Wait a minute. I'm off duty. I can walk."
"Good luck with that in those heels." Geri drew up to her full height of five feet four inches. "Good evening, Captain Palmer."
"Ms. Kruger. I don't care if you are off duty, Connor, we're going to talk. You, me and Agent Maguire here."
Of course he'd have a guy name. Geri's lips curved into a knowing smile. Vanessa braced and turned. "Agent Maguire," she acknowledged, and was surprised by the quick surge of she wasn't sure whatthat jolted through her. Could have been lust. Or appreciation. Whatever it was, it mingled swiftly with suspicion. "Why do I need to talk to a federal agent?"
Palmer glared. "Courtroom time make you dense, Connor? I know you know about Mara Chan. That makes three of your old college roommates dead inside ninety days."
"We weren't roommates." But it was a technicality, and Vanessa was dragging her feet, something she rarely did. "I don't want a leave of absence, Captain, and I don't need a federal agent breathing down my neck." She flashed Agent Maguire a quick smile. "No offense."
"I'm used to it."
Geri chuckled. "Great voice," she mouthed to Vanessa, before holding out her hand. "I'll take that as my cue to exit. Nice to have almost met you, Mr. Maguire."
His answering smile was friendlier than expected. "You, too, Ms. Kruger."
Geri gave Vanessa a discreet nudge. "Stay safe," she whispered, and headed for the door.
"No objections, Connor," her captain warned. "We've got three dead Berkeley women on our hands."
In actual fact "we," meaning the San Francisco Police Department, didn't have any dead Berkeley women on their hands since none of the victims had lived or died anywhere near the Bay Area. But Vanessa kept her mouth shut and waited for him to drop his bomb. He always did. It was the reason homicide detectives liked him. Or didn't, depending on their dispositions.
"I want you to listen to Agent Maguire. Moreover, I want you to cooperate with him."
As bombs went, it was far from unanticipated. Still " I don't need a babysitter, Captain."
"You need what I say you need. Agent Maguire will talk, and you'll listen. But not here." He dismissed the still-bustling room. "Some place where you can actually hear what he's saying."
As if to emphasize his point, a detective and a uniformed officer ushered a young man in handcuffs through the door. The man had blood on his shirt, had lost several teeth and was shouting every four-letter word in the English language, along with a few Vanessa recognized as Dutch.
Palmer stuck his face in hers. "Go," he said softly. "Pick a restaurant. Dinner's on the department. And don't tell me you've already eaten, because I know your routine."
Vanessa wondered if either man understood Dutch, but she held her tongue and forced a smile. "Do you like Armenian food, Mr. Maguire?"
"Rick," he replied with a quirk of his lips. "I'm good with anything."
Especially women, she imagined. But that was an unfair thought that he'd done nothing to deserve. Yet.
"Right. Well." She considered clipping her hair back, then saw no less than three detectives firing visual bullets at Rick Maguire's back and reasoned that a fast escape might be prudent.
"I won't go into hiding." She shot the warning over her shoulder as they worked their way through the room.
"That's between you and your captain, Detective."
She relented. "Vanessa's fine. But you can eighty-six the charm. I'm not easily wooed."
"You'd rather be treated like one of the guys?"
"I'm okay with it."
"How often does it happen?"
She glanced back. "Do all Feds ask sexist questions?"
"Only when challenged by beautiful women."
"I'm a cop."
"And a beautiful woman." Reaching around her, he pulled the door open. "You want to get to the point, am I right?"
"It'd be nice."
"Okay, we'll start with your dead friends. Then, we'll move on to your former Berkeley College connection. Finally" his dark eyes met hers "we'll deal with the fact that someone broke into your home last week and went through your bedroom closet."
Rick let her direct him to Grant Avenue, to the Dragon's Gate. Not that he needed a human GPS. He'd spent a good portion of his youth in San Francisco, sharing houses with friends as aimless as he'd been back then, soaking up the atmosphere of a lost era, and hoping for the smallest scrap of inspiration as to where his life should go.
"Is this your car?" Vanessa inquired from the passenger seat.
He watched her run a finger over the soft leather armrest and grinned. "About a third of it. I'll be making payments for a few more years."
"Quite a few, I imagine. I have an aunt in Bodega Bay. Her husband had a Porsche. He ran it into a northbound train one night, died on impact."
"There's an uplifting story."
"He was dying anyway. A crash was the better way for him. It was a freight train. No casualties except my uncle, his Porsche and a whole lot of sugar." She motioned forward. "Park anywhere. We can talk while we walk."
"To the Chinese-slash-Armenian restaurant?"
It was her turn to grin. "Armenian food's great, but you absolutely have to eat Chinese when you come to San Francisco."
He couldn't argue with that. Nor could he keep his eyes from straying to her legs when he opened the door for her. The fact that he knew she knew he was looking and didn't bother to tug her skirt down intrigued him. Coy, Detective Connor wasn't. Inherently seductive, he suspected she was.
Temperatures in and around San Francisco had been uncommonly high for several days, or so Rick had heard. The thermometer still hovered in the mideighties, and it was almost 9:00 p.m. But Rick was accustomed to DC summers. Nothing on the west coast could touch the cloying heat and humidity of the east. "Wo Tan's has good duck."Vanessa folded her jacket over one arm. "There's also Kwon Lee's, but that's a Korean restaurant."
"Snuck in on the fringe, huh?"
"Married in. Okay, so what does my bedroom closet have to do with three murders? Obviously, you feel it's relevant."
He went with the simple answer, though he'd had to dig through several layers to uncover the link. "Your friends' bedroom closets were all trashed prior to their deaths."
Vanessa tipped her head. "Says lunatic with a big chip and a lot of emotional problems to me."
The white sleeveless top she wore clung like a second skin. She was, as he'd noticed earlier, a remarkably beautiful woman. He'd been half hoping she would also be unpleasant. From the information he'd gathered on the dead women, the first two certainly had been.
"Lunatic, maybe." He made what appeared to be an idle sweep of the brightly lit, extremely busy street. "And I'm sure we'll find a chip on at least one of his shoulders. Emotional problemswell, hey, we all have those, right? But this killer calculates and executes, cleverly and cleanly. He doesn't leave DNA, he doesn't give his victims time to raise an alarm and he doesn't hang around to gloat. Gloating is not uncommon," he added, bringing his gaze back to hers.
Amused, Vanessa tapped his forehead with her index finger. "Homicide cop, Rick. I've bumped into one or two gloaters myself. Some people say Jack the Ripper was guilty of that. Don't know why he springs to mind, but there you go. He left plenty of clues at the scenes of his maniacal murders, yet to this day no one really knows who he was. And don't even get me started on Norman Bates."
Rick chuckled. "I wouldn't have pegged you as a movie buff."
"I loved to be scared as a kid. I gave my aunt, Cinnamon the one in Bodega Baya mynah bird for Christmas last year and named it Lydia Brenner, after the character in The Birds."
"You should have called it Mrs. Bundythe know-it-all ornithologist who said birds couldn't and wouldn't mass together."
Appreciation softened her expression. "You're okay for a Fed. Now talk to me about the closets."
Drawing her out of the traffic flow in front of a Chinese emporium, Rick once again scanned the passing stream of late night humanity. He could have scanned Vanessa and enjoyed himself a great deal more, but with her long, red-brown hair, slitted pencil skirt, incredible legs and eyes the color of liquid honey, he knew better than to tempt fate.
"There's not a lot to tell. Anywhere from a week to ten days before they died, each victim's home was broken into and her bedroom closet trashed. None of them filed a report, so it took me more time than it should have to make the connection. Fortunately, while they didn't lodge official complaints, they did talk to friends and family members."
"Who eventually talked to you." She lifted a shrewd brow. "What's your technique, Maguire? Charm, straight up questioning, or does it vary depending on the questionee?"