John Lutz Is . . .
"One Of The Masters." –Ridley Pearson
"Rapidly Bleeding Critics Dry Of Superlatives." –St. Louis Post Dispatch
"In Rare Form." –The New York Times Book Review
To Trap A Killer
When he discovers his daughter's corpse in a deserted beachfront bungalow, devastated Ezekiel Cooper vows to find her murderer. The former NYPD detective doesn't know there have been other victims, women who seemingly had nothing in common, aside from a grisly fate. Then Coop crosses paths with Cara Callahan, who's determined to lure her sister's killer by transforming herself into someone just like her. But Cara's plan may be working too well. Because lurking in the shadows, just as Coop feared, the Night Caller watches her every move. . .preparing to strike again.
"Lutz Knows How To Seize And Hold The Reader's Imagination From The Start." Cleveland Plain Dealer
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About the Author
A multiple Edgar and Shamus Award winner—including the Shamus Lifetime Achievement Award—John Lutz is the author of over forty books. His novel SWF Seeks Same was made into the hit movie Single White Female, and The Ex was a critically acclaimed HBO feature. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and Sarasota, Florida. Visit him online at www.johnlutzonline.com.
Read an Excerpt
THE NIGHT CALLER
By JOHN LUTZ
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2001 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
Sue Coppolino was young, pretty, and nervous.
Her painted nails drummed on the steering wheel as she drove her red Sebring convertible toward the Siesta Key drawbridge in Sarasota. It was a hot and humid Florida night so she had the car's top down, and the wind caressing her face felt like warm liquid. The convertible's tires thrummed over the steel mesh of the bridge, and within seconds she was off the mainland and on the key.
She turned north on Midnight Pass Road, then veered to the right instead of going straight toward the public beach.
Wealthy estates and condominium complexes lay out of sight beyond thick foliage and palm trees on her right, overlooking calm, moonlit water. Because the night was bright, she could see the brilliant oranges and reds of the hibiscus and bougainvillea blooms. It was almost midnight and there was no other traffic, and with the top down the racheting scream of cicadas was sometimes deafening when the car glided past densely wooded areas. To the cicadas the desperate continual scream was a mating call. Right now, Sue heard it the same way.
She was up to no good. At least. some people would see it that way. Not that she was going to commit a burglary or anything. In fact, she made more than enough money in her job with a surveying company. It was just that—
The angular white buildings of Bay Vista condominium with their red tile roofs weren't visible from the road, but there was an ornate wrought-iron steel gate painted bone white just up ahead. Sue slowed the car but drove past the gate. The security guard wasn't on duty in the small air-conditioned booth, but anyone entering needed a resident's plastic card to insert in a slot that would trigger the gate to open.
No card for Sue. And she didn't need one. A few hundred feet down the road, she turned the car onto an unmarked and unpaved side road that ran parallel to Bay Vista's manicured grounds. Then she killed the headlights, letting the light from the bright crescent moon guide her.
She parked where she usually did, off the side of the road behind a tight grouping of date palms. As she turned off the idling engine, her heart seemed to take up its fast and rhythmic beat.
Sue didn't like sneaking around this way. Or did she? On a certain level it was exciting. Like being in a movie. She checked herself in the rearview mirror, then put on fresh lipstick and smoothed back her wind-mussed dark hair with her hand. Excitement aside, she did wish Marlee wouldn't force her to go through these subterfuges every time they met. It wasn't as if this was the love still afraid to say its name.
But she knew Marlee was right; it would be foolish for Sue to use the main gate. Marlee could easily obtain an extra card that would permit Sue's entering and leaving, but a video camera would capture her image and record times and dates of arrival and departure. That would never do.
Marlee Clark—long-legged, lithe, tanned, and muscled—had been a teenage tennis phenom only a few years ago. The experts made her the choice to within a short time be the top-seeded woman player in the world. Marlee had come close, winning major U.S. tournaments, making the semifinals at Wimbledon. But the pressure of high-level competition and glaring publicity had gotten to her. Drugs, first taken at the urging of her coach to ease the pain of injuries, then taken by Marlee despite the coach's warnings, had led to sloppy play on the court, then sloppy play off, with the media. A public shouting match at the U.S. Open, followed by a drugs-and-drink binge and an auto accident that had put her in the hospital for a month, started her real and undeniable decline.
Burned-out, she retired early and used some of her winnings to buy a luxury condo on the key, complete with private boat dock and her own cabin cruiser.
Marlee still needed income, and because of her pretty face and long red hair worn in her trademark braid, she was in demand as a television sports commentator and commercial pitch-woman. But if the public found out about her romantic life, she would lose many of her endorsement contracts.
It didn't seem to hurt her popularity that she'd once been into drugs. She'd been through a very public rehab, even told Barbara Walters how sorry she was. But if word got out that the pristine Barbie doll of tennis was a lesbian, and an unrepentant one, it would destroy the image that was worth big money to her. Sue argued that Marlee was simply acting paranoid; they were, after all, in the twenty-first century. But Marlee wouldn't budge, quoting her agent's figures on how much other women sports celebs had lost in dollars when they came out of the closet.
So Sue sneaked.
Once on the grounds of Bay Vista, she walked along the powdery white sand beach. There was no one in sight other than a couple strolling along the mystical border of the glittering surf line a hundred yards away. They seemed interested only in each other, but Sue turned her face away anyway as she crossed a narrow expanse of closely mown grass, then walked along a crushed shell path toward the rear of Marlee's building.
Careful not to brush against any of the aluminum-framed loungers that might scrape metal on concrete, she skirted the swimming pool, then approached the sliding glass doors to the ground-floor condo.
The drapes were open, and Sue stood for a moment looking in at the luxurious interior with its plank floors and thick area rugs, cream colored walls, and soft beige leather furniture. On the wall behind the sofa was a grouping of museum-quality oil paintings, all still lifes of fruit or flowers. It was an expensive world so unlike Sue's, and one that Marlee allowed her to share. Nothing in the room suggested its occupant had ever played tennis.
The sliding door was unlocked, as Sue knew it would be. That was part of the arrangement. The soft rumble of the door sliding in its track was barely audible over the collective shrill scream of the cicadas.
It was much cooler inside the condo. As soon as Sue slid the door shut to keep the conditioned air in and the mosquitoes out, she spotted Marlee where she'd fallen asleep in the leather recliner. Her head was canted back and her braid was undone, allowing her long red hair to fan out gracefully on the chair back. She looked so beautiful, doll-like, and peaceful. What were her dreams? Sue wondered. She approached the chair softly so she wouldn't awaken her, then reached out gently to touch her lover's shoulder.
Her hand came away wet.
Stunned, Sue ran her fingers over Marlee's pale face, her mind still unable to compute what was going on here. Was Marlee drugged? Asleep? Unconscious?
Still rejecting the dark and terrible fact before her, she gently cupped Marlee's cool, lovely face in her hands and slowly lifted her head.
Sue gagged and backed away, absently floating her red hand up to her mouth.
Marlee was dead. The back of her neck had been viciously hacked.
Sue couldn't bear to look at the gaping wound, but she couldn't look away even as she began to scream.
Two years after Marlee Clark's murder, and two thousand miles to the north, a middle-aged man named Ezekiel Cooper was sitting alone on the outdoor deck of a seafood restaurant. He was over six feet tall, built rangy, with light brown hair straight and combed to the side from a neat part. It was the kind of hair that looked ragged even after a fresh haircut. His lunch companion had been called away, but he didn't mind. These days he ate most of his meals alone, and he'd gotten to like it. When Coop (as his friends called him—even his enemies didn't call him Ezekiel) didn't have to converse, he could concentrate on the simple pleasures of the meal. At this stage of his life, he no longer let the simple pleasures slip away.
Like the sun on his face, still warm even though it was mid-October. And the breeze, bringing him the salt tang of the nearby ocean and the yelps and cries of gulls. The restaurant's deck overlooked Shell Bank Basin, with a clear view of Grassy Bay and a marina lined with pleasure boats. This was Howard Beach, way down in Queens. You couldn't even see the skyscrapers of Manhattan from here. Only the roar of a jet, descending toward nearby Kennedy Airport, broke the peaceful mood.
The restaurant, Seconds, belonged to Coop's friend Arthur Billard. They'd met at the police academy more than a quarter century ago and stayed friends as they made the long, hard climb to lieutenant. Unlike Coop, Billard was still active in the NYPD, but that hadn't kept him from buying this restaurant. He was always starting small businesses, Coop recalled. Seconds seemed to be doing better than most of them had. Every table on the deck was occupied, and there were plenty of customers inside, too The staff was bustling. In fact, Billard had been called into the kitchen "for a minute" when they sat down, and that had been half an hour ago.
Billard came through the swinging doors, mopping his brow. His broad face was flushed from the heat of the kitchen. He was a man of medium height, bald, and so wide in the middle that he didn't even try to button his suit coats anymore. He and Coop were the same age, forty-eight, and over the years Coop had watched Billard's hairline recede and his stomach expand—both at a faster rate than was the case with Coop himself. Coop had taken a secret satisfaction in that. Congratulated himself on aging well. Funny to think of that now. Few things were surer than that his old friend would outlive him.
"Sorry, Coop," Billard said as he settled heavily into his chair across the table. "Problems with the steam table."
Billard gestured at Coop's bowl of Manhattan clam chowder, which was still mostly full. "I told you not to wait for me."
"I didn't. I'm just taking it slow."
"Something wrong with it?" Billard was already turning in his chair, looking for their waiter. "Jeez, it must be cold by now. I'll get you—"
"Art, relax, it's fine."
Billard turned to face him, squinting in the bright sunlight. He hesitated, then said, "Nothing—uh—nothing wrong with your appetite, I hope? You're feeling okay?"
"My appetite's fine, too." Coop took a spoonful of soup to prove it. The chowder had a rich tomato flavor, and the clams tasted fresh. "The food's great, Art, really. You have a nice place here. Congratulations."
Billard relaxed. The waiter brought him his plate of fried calamari, and he opened his napkin and dug into it.
For a while they ate in silence. Then Billard began again. "We're doing real well here, Coop."
"I can see."
"In this neighborhood, if you can keep a restaurant going through the first couple years, build up a regular clientele, you're set. Place'll do a steady business for decades."
"Then I hope your luck holds."
"I don't want to trust to luck, you know? I'd like to be here all the time, keeping an eye on things. But I gotta put in two more years in the Job to get full pension. Can't quit now. I'm being pulled two ways here." Billard hesitated. "I hope maybe you can help me out."
Coop was aware of Billard's eyes on him as he took another mouthful of chowder. He swallowed and said, "Well, Art, 1 don't know what I can do."
"I want to bring you in as my partner." Billard held up a hand as if he were directing traffic, a sign to Coop to put on the brakes and hear him out. "I don't want you to put in money. Hell, we don't need money. What we need is a—a managing partner. A guy to be here, greeting the customers, keeping an eye on things."
"I know from nothing about the restaurant business, Art."
"You'll pick it up. What I need is someone I trust to be on the spot."
"Thanks for the offer. But I don't think so."
"Think about it, Coop, at least. This is perfect for you. You're retired. You got loads of time."
Coop set down his spoon. The bowl was a quarter full but he wasn't hungry anymore. He looked away from Billard, out at the line of docked boats in the basin. "Loads of time," he repeated. "Well, I don't know about that, Art."
Billard didn't say anything for a moment. Then: "But you're cured, right? They told me—"
"Not cured. They don't say cured about cancer. They say in remission."
"But it's gone, isn't it? They got it in the chemo. Burned it all out of you."
"Oncologists don't give guarantees, Art."
He could feel Billard's eyes on him but couldn't meet the look. Instead, he studied his chowder.
"You're looking good now, Coop. You've put back some of the weight you lost. And your hair grew back. Hey—that's something I wish would happen to me." He laughed, running his hand over his bare pate.
Coop made an effort and smiled. Then he checked his watch. "Look, Art, I better be going. My daughter's expecting me down at Breezy Point." He pushed back his chair and stood up. He'd gotten used to doing that slowly, during his chemotherapy, because otherwise a wave of dizziness would sweep over him. And the nausea might follow. The nausea might come anytime. But he felt all right now.
Billard rose with him. "At least think about my offer, will you?"
"It's not a time for me to be starting new projects."
"Come on, Coop. You don't wanna assume the worst. You could live for years. Decades."
"Possibly," Coop said. He held out his hand. Billard took it. Seemed reluctant to let it go. He said he'd walk Coop out to his car, but just then a waiter came up to say they had another problem in the kitchen, so he had to go.
Coop made his way through the crowded restaurant and out onto the sunny sidewalk. His car was parked half a block down. He headed for it. There was a time, a few months ago, when he wouldn't have been able to walk half a block. When he wouldn't have been able to keep down a bowl of clam chowder. Now he was feeling fine.
But he didn't believe it.
The guard on duty at the entrance to Breezy Point recognized his old Honda Accord and raised the barrier, waving him through. Coop rolled the window down so he could smell the salt air as he drove through the narrow streets. They were lined with one-story wooden bungalows set close together. As he got closer to the beach, he passed larger, newer houses. There were some rich people in Breezy Point now. Times had changed since the days when everybody was either a fireman or a policeman. It had been a long time since the community was jokingly called the Irish Riviera.
The Honda hummed smoothly along the road, its tires singing steadily and ticking at regular intervals when they rolled across seams in the pavement. As usual on a weekday in autumn, Breezy Point was quiet. That was what Coop's daughter Bette had told him she needed. Normally the beach house Coop and his former wife Maureen had bought and rehabbed in happier times was vacant and secured for the coming winter, but it was little trouble to ready it for Bette.
She'd been there almost a week now, but Coop hadn't seen her since dinner the night she'd driven into town.
Bette lived and worked in New Jersey, holding down a high-pressure job with a real estate company. Last week she'd called Coop and said she was taking a few weeks off from work and wanted to spend them at the beach house. That was fine with Coop. He missed her increasingly infrequent visits, and she sounded anxious and worn down.
He knew better than to question Bette about her troubles. When she was younger he was an overprotective parent, as cops tend to be. Her mother, strong willed and with her own set of demands on her daughter, hadn't helped matters. So Coop didn't blame Bette for guarding her privacy. He was just grateful she'd invited him down today.
He parked in the drive of the small clapboard bungalow and climbed out of the car. There was raw wood showing where some of the white paint had worn off on the structure's windward side, and the green shutters were starting to peel. The entire place would need painting soon. Usually Coop did that sort of job, but with his illness he found himself wondering if he should take the time. Painting a summer cottage was a productive project only for a man who had enough life to carry him into the next summer. He wasn't sure if he qualified.
He pressed the doorbell button and waited, but got no answer, heard no sound from inside. He pressed the button again and listened closely, sure that he heard the faint doorbell chimes from the cottage's interior.
Nothing else broke the silence.
After a few minutes, Coop tried the door and found it unlocked. He stepped inside and called his daughter's name. There was no answer. The only sound was the refrigerator's low hum, along with a faint shrill vibration of something glass dancing inside it on a wire shelf.
Then he saw Bette lying on her back on the couch, her dark hair spread on a pillow.
Most people would have assumed she was asleep, but not Coop. He'd visited too many homicide scenes and knew death when he saw it. When he smelled it and felt the solemn eternal hush of its presence.
He stepped numbly to the side and saw Bette's face, and he knew she'd been strangled.
Excerpted from THE NIGHT CALLER by JOHN LUTZ. Copyright © 2001 by John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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