Vivian Brazier never thought life as an art photographer would include nightly wake-up calls to snap photos of grisly crime scenes or headshots for aspiring male actors. Although she is set on a career of transforming photography into a new art form, she knows her current work is what’s paying the bills.
After shooting crime scene photos of a famous actress, the latest victim of the murderer the press has dubbed the “Dagger Killer,” Vivian notices eerie similarities to the crime scenes of previous victims—details that only another photographer would have noticed—details that put Vivian at the top of the killer’s target list.
Nick Sundridge has always been able to “see” things that others don’t, coping with disturbing dreams and visions. His talent, or as he puts it—his curse—along with his dark past makes him a recluse, but a brilliant investigator. As the only one with the ability to help, Nick is sent to protect Vivian. Together, they discover the Dagger Killer has ties to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood royalty and high society. It is a cutthroat world of allure and deception that Vivian and Nick must traverse—all in order to uncover the killer who will stop at nothing to add them to their gallery of murders.
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Adelina Beach, California
Here comes Cinderella," Toby Flint said. "She's out after midnight again. I don't see any glass slippers and those trousers sure don't look like a fancy ball gown."
"Still looking for Prince Charming?" Larry Burns said with a sly grin.
Vivian Brazier hurried up the front steps of the mansion and flashed a breezy smile at the small group of men in fedoras and frumpy jackets loitering around the closed door of the Carstairs mansion.
"Gosh, I was told I'd find Prince Charming here," she said. "Looks like I was given wrong information. Again."
Toby clapped a hand over his heart. "Now you've gone and hurt our feelings."
"What feelings?" Vivian asked. "You gentlemen are all spot news photographers, remember? You don't have feelings."
"Cinderella's got a point," Larry said.
There were several snorts of laughter. The uniformed officer guarding the front door chuckled.
She had been labeled Cinderella several months earlier when she had arrived at her first late-night crime scene wearing house slippers. She had rushed out the door so fast she had forgotten to put on her shoes. After that she had purchased slip-ons she could step into in a hurry but the Cinderella name had stuck.
Toby and the other local freelancers had found her to be a novelty at first. News photography was largely a man's world. But they had come to accept her because they knew she paid her bills the same way they did-by sleeping with the radio tuned to the police band all night long.
Freelancers were usually the first to arrive at crime-and-fire scenes because the salaried photographers-the guys who held genuine press passes from the newspapers and the syndicates-didn't show up until their night editors roused them from their beds with phone calls. Time was everything in the photojournalism business, especially at night.
Vivian looked at Toby. "How did you get the word?"
"I was sitting on a bench at the station, drinking coffee with some of the officers, when the call came in," Toby said.
Toby often spent his nights on a bench at the station waiting for the crime-and-fire reports. He was somewhere in his forties, single, rumpled, and perennially broke. Whenever Vivian opened her senses and looked at him the way she did when she studied a subject before she took a portrait, she was invariably aware of the jittery, nervous energy in the atmosphere around him.
She was pretty sure she knew why he always seemed to be poised on the edge of an invisible cliff. Toby could-and probably did-make a living selling photos of crime scenes, fires, and automobile accidents, but he was an inveterate gambler.
His addiction to dice and cards was no secret among his colleagues because he was always trying to borrow film or flashbulbs or gas money for his beat-up Ford sedan. Everyone knew that loans to Toby were never repaid. Vivian sometimes, but not always, gave him a couple of bucks or some supplies. She was on a tight budget but she felt she owed him. Several months ago, back at the start of her career as a freelancer, he had been a mentor of sorts. He had taught her many of the tricks of the trade and introduced her to the photo editor of the Adelina Beach Courier.
Like every other news photographer in the country, Toby dreamed of getting an assignment from Life, one that would make him famous and pay off his debts, but that had never happened. Vivian understood dreams. She had a few of her own.
"Any details on this one?" she asked.
"Fancy antique dagger found at the scene," Larry offered. "Same as the Washfield and Attenbury murders."
Vivian felt a ghostly whisper of cold energy on the back of her neck. "That's the third one in the past six months. The last Dagger Killer murder was only a month ago."
"This one is gonna be a real moneymaker for all of us," Larry said.
The other photographers muttered in agreement and checked their Speed Graphics to make sure they were loaded with film and fresh flashbulbs.
"Only thing that sells better than a movie star murder is a movie star who was stabbed by the Dagger Killer," Toby said, grimly cheerful. "Nice of the guy to do it here on our home turf this time. Gives us locals first crack at the front-page shots. We don't get a lot of this kind of action here in Adelina Beach."
Adelina Beach had a carefully manicured reputation for exclusivity, at least the classy neighborhood on the bluffs where the Carstairs mansion was located did. Several Hollywood stars and socialites had grand homes on the winding lanes overlooking the vast expanse of the bay and the Pacific Ocean. Murders were not supposed to happen in this part of town. Crime, what there was of it, usually took place down below on the streets near the beach where regular people lived.
Vivian's insides were already twisted tight with tension. Toby's words made her queasy. She liked to think she had become somewhat accustomed to crime scenes. She had learned how to brace herself for the shock long enough to do her job. But she knew she was never going to develop the invisible emotional armor that seemed to protect most news photographers from the horror and the deep sense of sadness generated by terrible crimes.
The front door opened. Light spilled out of the hallway. A plainclothes detective appeared. Vivian recognized him. Joe Archer was the head of Adelina Beach's tiny homicide squad. He surveyed the cluster of photographers and grunted.
"Let 'em in," he said to the uniformed officer. "One shot each. I don't want them messing up the scene."
Vivian surged through the doorway with the other photographers. Her Speed Graphic was as good as a genuine press pass. The big camera was the badge of the news photographer. Cops rarely questioned a freelancer who carried one. The trick for getting past the police line, Toby had explained early on, was attitude.
Vivian had quickly discovered that the sturdy Speed Graphic also made a handy defense weapon that could be used to keep the competition from jostling her aside. The male photographers might joke or flirt or talk about their craft with her when they were all standing around waiting for a picture, but when it came time to grab the shot a photo editor would buy, she was on her own. News photography was a competitive business.
The body lay on a high-backed, red-velvet-and-gilt sofa. Clara Carstairs looked much smaller in death than she did when she dazzled audiences on the silver screen. Her slender figure, clad in a formfitting gold satin evening gown, was gracefully posed on the crimson cushions. Her dark hair flowed in deep waves around her bare shoulders. Her makeup, from the delicately drawn eyebrows to the fashionable shade of red lipstick, was flawless.
One gold high-heeled sandal had fallen to the carpet, revealing a dainty foot clad in a silk stocking. The hem of the gown was hiked high up on one thigh. Crystals sparkled in her ears and around her wrists. An empty glass tipped on its side and a bottle of cognac sat on a black lacquer coffee table.
If not for the blood that soaked the bodice of the gown and the jeweled dagger on the coffee table, it would have looked as if Carstairs had returned from a night on the town, poured herself a nightcap, and fallen asleep on the sofa.
The lighting was almost perfect. Mysterious shadows cloaked the background. The victim and her gold gown were luminous against the red velvet cushions.
Vivian and the others halted about ten feet from the scene, close enough to make the body the dramatic focal point but far enough away to get the surrounding elements for a touch of context. The ten-foot rule of thumb was one of the reasons why most of the pictures on the front pages would look the same in tomorrow's papers. The trick, Vivian had discovered, was to find an angle or an element that added that extra something to the final image, a hint that the victim had possessed deeply held secrets, secrets she had taken to the grave.
Two more photographers rushed into the room just as the first flashbulbs flared. The space was suddenly illuminated in a blaze of hot, blinding light. In the aftermath the used bulbs were swiftly ejected, landing on the carpet where they got crunched underfoot. They were immediately replaced as everyone ignored Archer's orders and prepared for a second shot.
Vivian held her fire, searching for the picture that would stand out from the others, one with the emotional impact that would make a photo editor seize on it. She would know it when she found it. That was the way it always worked for her.
Tires squealed outside in the street. A moment later a reporter strode into the room, fedora pushed back on his head, notebook at the ready. The space was filling up fast.
Vivian prowled the edge of the crowd, pausing near a potted palm. From where she stood Clara Carstairs no longer appeared to have fallen asleep. The knife, the overturned sandal, the lifeless, outflung hand told the sad story of a beautiful young woman who had come to Hollywood with dreams in her eyes only to die like the tragic heroine she had played in her last film, Farewell at Dawn.
The subject's secrets were always there if you knew how to look for them.
There was a lull in the blaze of lights. Several photographers, including Toby, headed for the door. One or two hung back, hoping for one more good picture.
Vivian grabbed her shot.
And then she, too, sprinted for the door. The race was on to get the film into a darkroom where it could be developed and printed in time for the morning editions of the papers. The photographers who carried real press passes would be able to use their papers' darkrooms. Vivian and the others had to do their own developing and printing.
She reached her little red speedster and was about to get behind the wheel when something made her pause.
She glanced back at the front door of the mansion. The angled light from the hallway appeared ominous. The lone officer still stood at the entrance. As she watched, the remaining photographers hurried outside to their cars.
It occurred to her that there might be a market for a photo of the scene of the crime. The big house was a Hollywood legend in its own right. Clara Carstairs was not the first famous resident. She could envision a caption. Mansion of Doom?
She slapped a fresh film holder into the camera, popped in a new flashbulb, and went back up the front walk. It might be a mistake to waste time on an outdoor shot but her intuition told her that it would sell. She would include the officer. Pictures with people always sold best.
She stood in the shadows of the front entrance and prepared to shoot the doorway. The low rumble of a powerful engine stopped her. She turned and saw headlights spearing the night. An expensive convertible braked to a halt at the curb. A man got out. He was not wearing a hat. When she saw his famous profile in the light of the streetlamp she held her breath and retreated deeper into the shadows. Ripley Fleming was one of the hottest stars in Hollywood.
Fleming moved swiftly along the stone walk, the wings of his elegant overcoat whipping around him. He went up the front steps and confronted the officer.
"What the hell is going on? Is Miss Carstairs all right?"
The officer, stunned by the realization that he was speaking to a famous actor, had to try a couple of times before he could string words into a coherent sentence.
"Miss Carstairs is dead, sir," he mumbled.
"Dead?" Ripley said, as if he was not familiar with the word.
"Murdered, sir. They're saying it's the work of the Dagger Killer."
"Murdered," Ripley repeated. He sounded dazed.
He turned to gaze through the partially open door. Vivian knew that from where he stood he could see a portion of the body on the crimson sofa. There was something about his expression that was vaguely familiar. In the glow of the hallway light, Fleming's chiseled features were set in the same dramatic mask of shock that had made for a riveting scene in his last film, Dead End Alley.
And there it was, another golden shot for her camera. A picture of Ripley Fleming's arrival at the scene of the Carstairs murder shortly after the body had been discovered would be worth more than the photo of the dead woman because there were no other photographers around to capture the expression on the actor's face. Exclusive.
Vivian quietly readied her camera. Ripley must have heard her moving in the shadows. He whipped around and saw her. Something akin to panic replaced the horror on his memorable face.
"Please, no," he whispered. "No pictures. I'll pay you-"
She hesitated a second but she knew she had already made the decision. She lowered the camera.
"Forget it," she said. "You don't need to pay me not to take your photo, Mr. Fleming. I'm very sorry about Miss Carstairs."
"Thank you," Fleming said. He hesitated. "I owe you."
"No," she said. "You don't."
He fled down the steps and jumped into his convertible. Tires shrieked when he pulled away from the curb and raced down the street.
"Reckon the rumors in the Hollywood papers are true," the officer mused. "Looks like Mr. Fleming and Miss Carstairs were having an affair. I'd better tell Detective Archer about this."
The cop disappeared inside the house.
Vivian shot the house and hurried back to her car. This was why she was never going to have a great career in photojournalism, she thought. Taking a picture of the body at a crime scene was one thing. Photographing the shocked lover after he had begged her not to take his picture was beyond her. It would have felt wrong, indecent.
She jumped into the speedster and drove quickly down the winding lanes of the ritzy neighborhood and through the quiet streets of the town below. She parked in front of the beach house and hurried inside with her camera.
She headed straight for her darkroom-a converted pantry off the kitchen-grabbed the bottle of developer, and filled up the first tray. Next she prepared the stop bath and finally the fixer tray.
When she had everything ready she turned off the lights, closed the heavy black curtain as an extra precaution against light, and went to work.
An hour and twenty minutes later she was in the office of the photo editor of the Adelina Beach Courier. Eddy Banks-middle-aged, reeking of cigar smoke, and endowed with extremely poor taste in clothes-studied the prints of the Carstairs murder.