In this stunning follow-up to Brian Freeman's remarkable debut novel, Immoral, Detective Jonathan Stride discovers that there are only two ways to go in Las Vegas. You can hit the jackpot. Or you can get Stripped...
They looked like isolated cases: a hit-and-run and a celebrity murdered during a fling with a prostitute. No one could ever imagine they'd be linked to a brutal crime in Las Vegas's steamy past—and that the race against the clock to corner a determined serial killer would stir up secrets long thought buried with the dead. As detectives Jonathan Stride and Serena Dial are called separately to investigate, they have no idea what they're stepping into: a world where desperate ambition rules and loyalties know no bounds, and where their own uncharted emotions and sexual desires will reach an explosive conclusion.
Shocking, twisted, with edge-of-your-seat suspense, Stripped pushes the limits of its heroes and keeps the reader turning ever page until the last plot twist.
About the Author
Brian Freeman is the internationally bestselling author of psychological suspense novels featuring detectives Jonathan Stride and Serena Dial. His books have been sold in 46 countries and 18 languages. His debut thriller, Immoral, won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. His other novels include The Bone House, The Burying Place, In the Dark, and Stalked. Brian is drawn to complex characters, and says, “My stories are about the hidden intimate motives that draw people across some terrible lines.” Brian and his wife, Marcia, have lived in Minnesota for more than twenty years.
Read an Excerpt
Elonda scanned Flamingo Road with the practiced eyes of a turkey vulture, lazily circling the desert landscape and hunting for prey. She spotted her quarry a half block from the Oasis casino and sized him up.
He was tall and tan, like a surfer washed up in the city, with wavy blond hair that hung below his ears and wraparound silver shades. Young, maybe twenty-two. He wore a loud, untucked short-sleeve shirt with the buttons done wrong, a loose-fitting pair of white shorts, and dirty sneakers with no socks. His cocky walk told her he had money in his pocket. He wore sunglasses at night, and she knew that behind the shades his eyes were on the hunt, too, just like hers.
His head swiveled in her direction. He saw her and grinned.
Her cop radar wasn't going off. Cops didn't walk — they pitched the girls from inside their unmarked, air-conditioned sedans. Only the newbies fell for them.
Elonda sauntered across the wide street, raising her hand to stop the speeding cars and flashing the drivers with her white teeth and a jiggle of her breasts. There was plenty of traffic at one in the morning. The city operated on jungle rules: Feed under the cool cover of darkness, and find a patch of shade to sleep through the hot days.
On the opposite sidewalk, she ducked into the doorway of a magic shop. She pulled a bottle of K-Y from the back pocket of her jeans and squirted some on her fingers. Sucking in, she squeezed a hand inside her skin-tight pants and lubed up. She did a little dance, rubbing it in. A trick of the trade. Oh, I am so wet for you, baby. Although most guys weren't looking to pole her these days. They were too afraid of AIDS or too klutzy to get inside her standing up. So they went for the mouth music.
With the grease between her legs, Elonda flipped her hair back and listened to the rap of the multicolored beads dotting her cornrows. She tugged on her feathered pink tube top until the black crescents of her nipples peeked through. Finally, she popped a wintergreen mint onto her tongue. Another little trick. Guys loved the cool burn of the mint in her warm mouth.
She eased back onto the sidewalk and scoped out the street, looking for competition. No, she was alone, just her and the bad boy. The lights of the Strip shone like fire across the freeway. On this side of I-15, where casinos spilled over from Las Vegas Boulevard like popcorn out of an overflowing box, the Gold Coast and Rio shimmered on the north side of the street, and the Oasis tower loomed a block away. Where she was, though, Flamingo was dark, nothing but an empty lot and the old cinderblock magic shop butting up to the street.
Elonda leaned her shoulders against the shop window, her hips jutting out, and casually nibbled on one painted nail. Letting a slow smile creep onto her face, she turned her head and drank him in. He was headed right for her, his feet trampling on nudie brochures littering the street. No hesitation. This wasn't his first time.
As he got closer, her eyes narrowed. He looked familiar, but she couldn't place him. He wasn't a regular — she hadn't done him before. Maybe she recognized his face from one of the tabloids. Behind the shades, it was hard to tell. But Elonda studied him long and hard, because a celebrity paying for sex from a Vegas hooker might be worth some serious cash from someone.
He stopped right next to her. "Hey."
His voice was young and carefree. Bored. Slurred.
"Hey yourself." Elonda reached out and slid a finger inside his shirt, making a circle on his chest. "Don't I know you, baby?" "You ever been to Iowa?" he asked.
A hick with a familiar face, she thought. Damn. "A lot of cows and corn there, right? And shit on your shoes? No thanks."
Elonda cast her eyes up and down the street, looking for Metro patrol cars. The traffic came and went — Hummers, limos, pickups, beaters — but there was no one who would hassle her. A block away, near the Oasis, she spotted a man standing by a bus stop, looking bored, checking his watch. In the other direction, no one at all. The coast was clear.
"Suck or fuck?" she asked.
He didn't answer, but stuck out his tongue and flicked it at her. She smelled gin wafting from his mouth. Elonda gave him a price, and he dug out two crumpled bills from his pocket. She used one of her ragged fingernails to nudge him backward into the doorway of the magic shop. Elonda got on her knees and unzipped him. She glanced up. His eyes were closed. She saw a couple of days' worth of yellow stubble on his chin.
She began counting in her head. That was her little game, something to pass the time, like the office workers who listened to their iPods while they typed all day. One, two, three, four. No guy had ever made it to one hundred. Most didn't make it to ten.
He took a few seconds to stiffen — that was the gin, she figured — but she worked her magic, and his body responded. She heard a low rumble in his throat, a purr of pleasure. When she glanced up from her work, she saw that his mouth had fallen open.
Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four.
He was already close. She could feel his hips moving, starting to thrust, and she sucked harder and moved her head faster.
Elonda heard something clip-clop nearby, the sound of heavy boots on the sidewalk. Someone was heading their way from the casino. She looked up again, but the farm boy was already on another planet, and he didn't hear a thing. Clip-clop, clip-clop. She didn't really care. She got peeped all the time and heard the shocked whispers from people who secretly wished she was on her knees in front of them. If he looked their way, let him enjoy the show.
Forty-five, forty-six. The farm boy was getting ready to blow.
The tapping of the boots came up directly behind her in the doorway, and then they stopped right there. Elonda heard a rustle of fabric and a strange metallic click. The john's eyes were still closed, and he moaned loudly.
It was creepy, that man standing behind her, watching them. She got a bad feeling. The hairs on her neck pricked up, and she knew he was still there, although she couldn't even hear him breathing. She could feel his eyes. A cloud of menace engulfed her. It was the kind of sixth sense you got after enough time on the street.
Elonda let the man's shaft slip from her mouth. She bit her lip and looked up, but she wasn't going to look back, not for anything. Immediately, the john's eyes snapped open, his lips twisting into an angry scowl. Then she watched as he spotted the stranger behind her.
"What the —"
His anger became slack-jawed surprise. His eyes widened. She saw his face register disbelief.
Then he didn't have a face anymore.
The loudest sound Elonda had ever heard detonated in her ears like the cap being blown off a volcano. The farm boy sprouted a third eye, and his head fell forward, so she could stare right at him and see up into the hole burrowed into his skull, a red river pouring out of it. As she watched, he crumpled into a pile and collapsed on top of her, pinning her to the ground. Blood streamed over her, rippling like worms across her skin and seeping into her clothes. She smelled urine and shit as his bowels evacuated.
Finally, Elonda remembered to scream. She closed her eyes and unleashed a screeching yell that went on and on until she ran out of breath. No one seemed to hear. None of the traffic stopped. All she heard was the sound of footsteps again, going away now, heading back down the street as casually as they had arrived. Clip-clop, clip-clop.
Fish out of water.
Jonathan Stride tried to concentrate on Elonda, who was slumped on the sidewalk, her body and clothes painted in dried blood. She talked a mile a minute, and he tried to keep up with her, but his eyes kept glancing over her head into the window of the magic shop. There was a black box inside, with a glass fishbowl in one half, filled with water. In the other half of the box, a goldfish swam back and forth. Outside the bowl. Seemingly in midair.
It was a hell of a trick, and Stride wondered how long a fish could survive in those conditions.
He tried to slow Elonda down. "Take it easy, okay? We need your help."
"You just get this bastard!" Elonda screeched, her arms waving, her cornrows clicking like poker chips. "Son of a bitch probably left me deaf. Sounded like a bomb going off."
Stride squatted down until he was eye to eye with Elonda, and he took one of her flyaway wrists firmly in his hand. "Stay with me now. We're going to get you cleaned up, put you in some new clothes, and then you're going to eat yourself silly at the Rio buffet, all courtesy of Metro. Okay? That sound like a deal? But I need you to give me some information first."
"I like the Harrah's buffet better," Elonda snapped.
"Okay, Harrah's it is. Now are you ready to talk to me?"
Elonda pouted with her thick lips. She hugged her bare knees with her arms. Stride pushed himself to his feet and slid a notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his navy blazer. He wore the coat over a bone white, button-collar dress shirt and crisp new black jeans. Serena had insisted that he start the new job with new jeans, and he had finally relented, although he hated to abandon the fraying pair that had fitted his body like an old friend for the last ten years in Minnesota. The starched denim felt stiff, like cardboard, which was how he felt here in Las Vegas. A fish out of water. It was another universe compared to the midwestern world where he had spent his whole life.
"The victim, did you see where he came from?"
"The Oasis," Elonda said.
Stride eyed the casino and its slim, phallic tower. The hotel was hosting a Victoria's Secret fashion show, and a slinky lingerie model thirty stories tall stared imperiously back from a huge vertical banner that stretched nearly to the Oasis roof. She had white wings, as if she might fly away and terrorize the city. King Kong with a D cup.
"Was he alone?" Stride asked.
Elonda nodded. "Yeah. Headed my way like a fucking laser beam."
"He say anything to you about himself? Tell you who he was?"
"Oh, sure, baby, we had a fine conversation. People meet me, they want to talk." Elonda snorted. Then she added, "He said he was from Iowa."
Stride shook his head. "He wasn't. His ID says Vancouver."
"Fucker lied to me? Well, God'll get you for lying." She grinned at Stride.
"Was there anybody else on the street?" he asked.
Stride glanced at the area surrounding the magic shop. The street was open and wide — you could see for blocks. He didn't think the killer appeared out of nowhere like one of the magic tricks in the window.
"You told me you heard the killer walk up to you. Where did he come from?"
"I don't know, man. There wasn't a soul." She chewed a fingernail and idly scratched an itch between her legs. "Wait, wait, hang on. There was somebody at the bus stop down there."
Stride tapped his pen against his front teeth and squinted as he studied the bus stop, which was near the base of the Oasis driveway about thirty yards away. No shelter, just a street sign and a notch in the pavement for the bus to pull off the street.
"What did he look like?" Stride asked.
Elonda shrugged. "As long as he wasn't a cop, I didn't care."
"Fuck, I don't know."
Stride ran a hand back through his unkempt salt-and-pepper hair. It was wavy, with a mind of its own, and more salt and less pepper every day. He bit his lip, imagining the street empty, not a riot of police activity, just Elonda and the horny Canadian.
And a man waiting for a bus.
"Did you hear a bus?" he asked. "You would have noticed if one went by right behind you."
Elonda thought back. "No. No bus."
"How long were you in the doorway before the murder?"
"'Bout forty-five seconds," Elonda said.
"You sound pretty sure."
"I count," she said, and gave him a broad wink.
Stride got the picture. No bus, and less than a minute before the shooting. He waved at one of the uniformed officers on the scene, a burly kid with a blond buzz cut and a stubble goatee.
"Go down to that bus stop," Stride told him. "Then time yourself walking back here. Don't hurry. You're just a pedestrian on the street, okay?"
The cop nodded. It didn't take him long. When he arrived back in front of the magic shop, he clicked his sports watch and announced, "Thirty-two seconds."
Stride squatted down in front of Elonda again. "I'm going to need you to think real hard about that man at the bus stop."
"That was the guy, huh?" Elonda said. "Shit. I'm telling you, I don't remember him."
"Let's try something," Stride began.
He stopped when he heard a car horn blare sharply behind him, then heard the expensive purr of a sports car pulling up nearby, just outside the crime scene tape. A door opened, and Stride saw the cop with the goatee, who was still hovering nearby, mutter something foul under his breath. Stride glanced back in time to see a yellow Maserati Spyder peel off toward the Strip.
"Who's the tough-ass chick?" Elonda asked, looking over Stride's shoulder.
The Spyder had dropped off a woman who now stood with her arms folded over a large chest and one leg bent, with her foot on the curb. Her hair was short and spiky, dirty blond with black streaks. She was tall, probably only three inches short of Stride's own six-foot-one, and she looked strong and full-figured, with arms that filled out the sleeves of her tight white T-shirt. Her right arm sported a wolf's head tattoo. A gold police shield hung from the belt loop of her blue jeans.
"Don't worry about it," Stride told Elonda. "Right now, I want you to close your eyes. Just relax and think back to when you first spotted your customer."
"You trying to hypnotize me?" Elonda asked. "Can you make me stop biting my nails?"
Stride smiled. "No, I just want you to remember. Picture it in your head, okay? You just saw your mark. You're crossing the street. Is the other man already waiting at the bus stop?"
Elonda started humming. Her head bobbed back and forth, following a rhythm. Then, abruptly, her eyes snapped open. "No, he wasn't there! Hey, this is cool."
"Close your eyes again. Keep replaying it."
"Yeah, now the guy's behind him at the bus stop. I see him. Where the fuck did he come from?"
"What's he doing?"
"Checking his watch. Looking up and down the street. Real cool."
"What's he wearing?" Stride asked. He thought about a way to trigger her memory and added, "When he checks his watch, can you see his bare arm?"
Elonda pursed her lips, as if she were puckering for a kiss. Her brow furrowed. "A coat!" she said happily. "He's got a windbreaker — tan, I think. And tan pants, too, khakis maybe."
"You're doing great. Is he a big guy?"
"He ain't so tall. Not real big either. But he looks, I don't know, tough. Mean dude."
"How about hair color?"
"Dark," Elonda said. "Cut short. A beard, too. He's got a beard."
"Elonda, you're beautiful," Stride said, and he watched the girl beam with pride. He spent another ten minutes playing out the rest of the scene, but the closer she got to the murder, the more her mind blacked it out. When he was done, he called over the goateed cop and told him in a whispered voice what to do.
"Harrah's?" the cop asked in disbelief. "You're kidding me. Sawhill will flip if I put this in for reimbursement."
Stride shoved a hand into his pocket and fished two twenties out of his wallet. "Here, take this, and get yourself something, too. You're looking too thin."
The cop rubbed his oversized neck and smiled. "Whatever you say."
"But hands off the girl," Stride added.
* * *
When Elonda was safely in the back of a patrol car, Stride sought out his new partner.
It was odd, working the street again, a detective on the case. He had been the lieutenant in Duluth, a big fish in a small pond, and now he was just another investigator on the Metro Homicide Detail in Las Vegas. The closest thing he had ever had to a partner back home was Maggie Bei, the senior sergeant in his detective division. Stride and Maggie had worked together for more than a decade, and the tiny Chinese cop with the sharp, sarcastic tongue had become his best friend. Now Maggie was still in Minnesota, married and off the force, a baby on the way. Stride was in Sin City, the last place he could have imagined being.
Thanks to Serena.
He had met Serena Dial over the summer, while the two of them investigated a Las Vegas murder that had its roots in a teenage girl's disappearance in Minnesota years earlier. The investigation had upended his life in Duluth and destroyed his second marriage, which he knew had been misguided from the start. Maggie rarely missed an opportunity to remind him that she had seen divorce coming for him like a train wreck, and he had ignored her warnings.
But old things ended, and new things began. Meeting Serena had changed everything. She was beautiful, smart, and funny, despite the sharp edges that came with a troubled past. He fell for her fast and hard. When the investigation was over, he had followed Serena here, to this wild world, and wound up back on the street.
Now he had a real partner again, who looked like she didn't relish the task of playing second fiddle to a Vegas newcomer.
Excerpted from "Stripped"
Copyright © 2006 Brian Freeman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: AMIRA,
PART TWO: CLAIRE,
PART THREE: BLAKE,
PART FOUR: MICKEY,