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Robert Hanson looked up from his computer screen when Lieutenant Fischer approached his desk. He wasn't surprised or worried about the anger that flashed in his boss's eyes. He knew what had put it there. Had heard the news before he'd gotten off the elevator. Even though it wasn't his case, it had been enough to make him shove his half-eaten bagel back into the bag and toss his untouched orange juice into the nearest waste can.
"Got another dead kid," his boss said.
Robert had really, really hoped that the pattern would break. For the past three weeks, there had been a new dead kid every Wednesday morning. This was week four. "I heard," Robert said.
"Did you hear he was Alderman Franconi's nephew? His sister's kid."
Robert shook his head. Franconi was tight with the mayor. The heat was going to be turned up high. Not that every detective on the force wasn't already aware of the case and keeping his or her eyes open 24/7 looking for some kind of clue.
"Where's Sawyer?" his boss asked.
"On his way. He's dropping Liz and the baby off at Options for Caring Mothers."
"Okay." His boss started to walk away. Then stopped, turned and edged close to the metal desk. "Carmen Jimenez still work there?" he asked, his inquiry casual.
"I guess so," Robert said, working hard to keep his tone neutral. He hadn't seen Carmen since the wedding three months ago, where his best friend, Sawyer Montgomery, had married her best friend, Liz Mayfield. Robert had been the best man. Carmen had been the maid of honor. Her dress had been an emerald-green and it had wrapped around her body in a way that had made him break out in an instant sweat.
The groom had been calmer than he'd been.
Which was ridiculous because everybody knew that Robert Hanson never got rattled by a woman. He managed relationships. Not the other way around.
"Pretty woman," Lieutenant Fischer said.
Robert raised an eyebrow. The lieutenant had been married for twenty years and had kids in high school.
"Just making conversation, Hanson. If it's any consolation, probably nobody but Sawyer and me realized that it was taking everything you had to keep your tongue from hanging out. We just know you better than most."
Robert shrugged and tried his best to look innocent. "I don't know what you're talking about, sir."
Lieutenant Fischer let out a huff of air. "Of course you don't. When Sawyer arrives, get your butts out to the scene. Blaze and Wasimole are still there. They could use some help talking to neighbors. Details are online in the case file."
Robert shifted in his chair and reached for his computer keyboard. But he let his hands rest on the keys.
Visions of Carmen Jimenez weren't that easy to push aside.
They'd danced, just once. It was expected, after all. And she'd felt perfect in his arms. And her scent had danced around him, making his head spin. He'd made small talk. Nice wedding, wasn't it? Is your brother starting high school soon? Are you busy at work?
She responded, her voice soft and sexy, with just a bare hint of a Spanish accent. Very pretty. Yes, he is looking forward to playing in the band. Always lots to do.
And when the music had ended, he hadn't wanted to let go. But she'd stepped away, murmured a quick thank-you and left him standing in the middle of the dance floor.
And later, when he'd tried to catch her eye, she'd looked away, and he wondered if it was deliberate. Toward the end of the evening, he hadn't had to wonder anymore. He'd finally worked up the courage to ask her to dance again and when she'd seen him approaching, had practically run into the ladies' restroom to avoid him.
He didn't need it written on the damn marquee. She wasn't interested. So he'd forgotten about her.
Well, he was working on it.
He tapped on his keyboard and brought up the case file. In their system, every entry was date- and time-stamped. Detectives Blaze and Wasimole, two veterans, had been on the scene within fifteen minutes of the call coming in at four o'clock this morning. Shortly after that, they'd entered a brief narrative into the electronic case file and updated it twice after that.
Victim had been discovered by a couple of sanitation workers. They hadn't touched the body. That was good. More than fifteen residents of nearby apartment buildings had already been interviewed and nobody had seen anything. That was bad.
There were multiple stab wounds, and fingers on his right hand had been severed and removed from the scene.
That wasn't a surprise.
The first victim had lost two fingers on his left hand. The second, two on the right. The third, two on his left hand.
Left, right. Left, right. There was a crazy symmetry about the handiwork but the end result was always the same. The kids were dead. Although it hadn't come easy. Coroner had determined in the first three deaths that the mutilation had occurred prior to death, which meant that they'd suffered the pain, then the blood loss; and finally the bastard had killed them by suffocating them by covering their noses with duct tape and stuffing a red bandanna in their mouths.
The killer hadn't bothered to remove the bandanna once the kids were dead.
Robert checked the notes. Yep. Victim had been found with his nostrils taped shut and a red bandanna stuffed in his mouth. He clicked on the pictures that had already been uploaded and started scanning them. They were gruesome and made his empty stomach twist.
When he heard Sawyer's footsteps, he was grateful for the interruption. His partner shrugged off his heavy coat, pulled out his desk chair and sank into it.
"You look like hell," Robert said.
"It's amazing the trouble one little tooth can cause," Sawyer said, his lazy drawl more pronounced than usual. "Catherine was up several times during the night. That doesn't happen very often."
"How's Liz?" Robert asked.
"Fabulous," Sawyer answered, sounding like a very happy man. "Although she wasn't too crazy about me giving Catherine my leather belt to chew on. That is, until she saw how well it worked."
"Southern tradition?" Robert asked.
Sawyer shook his head. "Midwest desperation."
Robert stood up. "Well, we got another kind of tradition going on here and quite frankly, it sucks." He pointed at his computer. Sawyer got up, rounded the desk, stood behind Robert, and quickly read through the information.
"Henry Wright," Sawyer said, resting his eyes on the text that had been added just an hour or so ago once the body had been identified.
"Alderman Franconi's nephew," Robert added. That wasn't in the notes.
"This is going to get interesting fast," Sawyer said.
"I know the area," Robert said. "Residential, mostly multiunit apartments. Some commercial."
Sawyer picked up the gloves that he'd tossed on his desk. He pulled them on. "Let's go knock on some doors. But take pity on me, for God's sake, and stop and get some coffee on the way. It's freezing out there."
"It's January in Chicago. What do you expect?"
"It would be nice if it got cold enough that all the killing stopped."
"It's cold," Robert said, "but I don't think hell has frozen over yet."
The two men piled into their unmarked car, with Robert driving. He pulled out of the police lot and five minutes later, found street parking in front of their favorite coffee shop. Once inside, he waited patiently while Sawyer had to flash a picture of six-month-old Catherine after the woman behind the counter asked for an update on the little girl.
Robert was damn happy for his friend. Liz was a great woman, and given how much she and Sawyer were enjoying their adopted daughter, Robert figured they'd be adding to their family in no time. He wasn't jealous.
Hell, no. He had the kind of freedom that married men dreamed about.
Back in the car, he sipped his coffee, grateful for the warmth. It hadn't been above twenty degrees for two weeks, which meant that the four inches of snow that had fallen three weeks ago lingered on. Most of the roads were clear, but the sidewalks that hadn't been shoveled right away now had a thick layer of hard-packed snow, making walking dangerous.
It was dirty and grimy and very non-postcard-worthy. Even in the high-rent area known as the Magnificent Mile, things were looking a little shabby.
Ten minutes later, Robert left the car in a no-parking zone. Five feet away, the alley entrance was still blocked off with police tape. He looked around. When he'd been a kid, he'd lived just a few blocks from here. For a couple years, he and his mom and husband number three had shared an apartment in one of the low-income high-rise buildings. His mom still lived less than ten blocks away.
He'd spent a fair amount of time on these streets. The area still looked much the same. There were a couple small restaurants, a dry cleaner, a tanning salon and one of those paycheck advance places where the interest started doubling the minute your loan payment was late. There was a church a block down, and the neighborhood school was just around the corner.
Buses ran up and down these streets in the daytime, leaving the snow-packed sidewalks tinged with black exhaust.
Sawyer crushed his empty coffee cup. "Ready?" he asked, pulling the collar of his heavy coat tighter.
"Sure," Robert said. He tossed his empty cup over his shoulder into the backseat.
It wasn't hard to see where the body had been found. The hard-packed snow was an ugly combination of black soot and fresh blood. Detective Charlene Blaze was talking to one of the evidence techs, who was still scraping the snow for something. He didn't see her partner, Milo Wasimole.
"Hey, Charlene," Robert said. "How's it going?"
She was a small woman, maybe mid-fifties. Her first grandchild had been born the previous week. Her face was red from the cold. "Okay, I guess. I lost feeling in my toes about a half hour ago."
"Lieutenant Fischer asked us to swing by."
She nodded. "Yeah, all hands on deck when an alderman's nephew gets it," she said, her tone sarcastic.
Robert understood. Hell, there were teenagers killed almost every night in Chicago. Most of the killings were gang-related. And nobody seemed to get all that excited about it.
But after week two, when it had become apparent that they might have a serial killer on their hands, the cases had started to get attention.
Week three, local newspapers had gotten hold of the story, noting the similarities in the killings. Two days later, they got television exposure, when the twenty-four-hour news channels picked it up. Then the dancing had started. Because nobody in the police department wanted it widely known that three kids were dead and they didn't have a clue who was responsible.
"Press been here yet?" Robert asked.
Charlene nodded. "Oh, yeah. Can't wait to see tomorrow's headline." She nodded goodbye to the evidence tech, who was putting away his things. "I know you guys already have your own caseload but I have to admit, I'm appreciative of every set of eyes I can get. This is getting really creepy. Based on what we know at this point, this was a good kid. Fourteen. Just made the eighth-grade honor roll. Played the trumpet in the middle-school band."
Robert had read the files of the other three dead kids and knew they had similar stories. First victim had been thirteen. Second, fifteen. Third, fourteen. All male. All good students. All without known gang ties. "Any connection to the previous three victims?"
"No. All four lived in different parts of the city and went to different schools. We don't have any reason to believe they knew each other or had common friends."
Robert shook his head. "Nobody ever said it was going to be easy." He pulled his gloves out of his pocket. "Sawyer and I'll start knocking on some neighbors' doors. Maybe we'll get lucky and somebody saw something."
Carmen Jimenez swayed back and forth with six-month-old Catherine on her hip. "I can't believe how big she's getting," she said to Liz, who was busy making coffee. "I saw her just a few weeks ago and she already looks different."
"I know. I'm almost grateful that her regular babysitter got sick. It's nice to bring her to work with me." Liz pushed the button on the coffee machine.
"Did Sawyer get her room finished?" Carmen asked.
Liz smiled. "It's gorgeous. I can't believe he had the patience to stencil all those teddy bears. You should come see it. We're getting pizza tonight. You and Raoul could join us."
"Raoul has band practice tonight. Even so " She stopped.
Liz frowned at her. "What's wrong? You look really troubled."
"Nothing," Carmen denied automatically. Then remembered this was Liz, her best friend. "I was going to say that even so, he probably wouldn't want to come with me. I haven't said much, but I'm worried about Raoul."
"What's wrong with your brother?" Liz reached for Catherine and settled the little girl on her own hip.
"He's not talking to me. By the time I get home from work, he's already in his room. He comes out for dinner, shovels some food in, and retreats back to his cave. I'm lucky if I get a few one-word answers."
"He's an adolescent boy. That's pretty normal behavior. Aren't you almost thirty? That automatically makes you too old to understand anything."
"I know. It's just hard for me. It seems as if it was just weeks ago that he and his best friend Jacob were setting up a tent in our living room, laughing like a bunch of hyenas until the middle of the night."
"I can see why you'd miss that," Liz said with a smirk.
Carmen rolled her eyes. "I know, I know. But in the old days he couldn't wait to tell me what had happened at school." She swallowed. "He used to confide in me."
Liz wrapped her free arm around her friend's delicate shoulder. "That, my friend, is the difference between ten and fifteen. Give him a couple more years and he'll start talking again. In the meantime, you need something else to focus on."
"Maybe I'll take up knitting," Carmen said. "I couldn't find my scarf this morning."
Liz shook her head. "That's not what I was thinking."
Carmen sighed loudly. She and Liz had had this conversation. "I know what you were thinking."
"I never thought I'd play matchmaker. Really, I didn't. It's just that I'm so happy. I want that for you."
"I know. That's the only thing that's keeping me from tripping you on these stairs." She leaned forward and kissed Catherine's soft cheek. "Take care of your mother, darling. Her head is in the clouds."
Liz shook her head. "Just think about it, please. Maybe try the online thing?"
"Sure. I'll think about it. But right now, I have more pressing issues. I'm meeting my new client in fifteen minutes. Alexa Sage is sixteen, seven months along and lives at home with her parents, who have no idea that she's pregnant."
Liz nodded. "Winter clothes make it easier to hide a pregnancy, that's for sure." She took another step. "Will you come for pizza tonight? Please?"
"No need to beg. My middle name is carbohydrate. I'll be there." Carmen stopped at her office door, unlocked it, opened the door and immediately walked across the small space to pull open the heavy curtain on the lone window. Most days the sun offered some warmth but today, everything outside was gray. Wednesday. Hump day. By five o'clock tonight, the workweek would be more than half over. Although for the counselors who worked at Options for Caring Mothers, their workweeks didn't tend to be so carefully defined. Babies came at all times of the day or night, and none of the staff wanted their teenage clients to be alone at that time.