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SingaporeSaturday, October 10
She had been pretty once.
Now her skin gleamed in the glow of the fluorescent lights. A strand of auburn hair fell across a well-shaped brow and her lips held a glimmering trace of sherbet lip gloss.
"It's a shame, really," the coroner said as his sun-bronzed hand held the edge of the stark white sheet. "Life was just getting started. Twenty-five or there about." He shook his head. "I try to remember that every time I step out of the house. Enjoy the moment. You just never know. And in this job you're reminded of mortality every day." A strand of salt-and-pepper hair drifted across his forehead. "I try not to think about it or it would drive me crazy."
"True," Josh Sedovich said. "Any idea how she died?"
The coroner nodded. "She was hit by a blunt object to the back of the head. Surprising, I always thought Singapore so civilized until I moved here and took this job. Unfortunately, it's turned out no better than anywhere else."
"Why does it always end like this? On a temporary visa to see the world and, just like that, it's over." Josh ran his hand along the side of his neck. "It's damn hot in here."
"No air-conditioning," the coroner said. "Is she who you're looking for?"
"No. Fortunately not." He fisted his right hand. Not so fortunately for the unknown young woman on the coroner's slab.
Probable murder, potential arson and an unknown assassin. He'd been on the trail of this case for the past three weeks, and now one person was dead and still, miraculously, the witness lived. Not only lived but thrived over days that had turned into weeks and weeks into months. It wouldn't have happened had the FBI called him in sooner.
"Interesting that Victor has given you a hall pass. Maybe the fact that she's American, too. But more than likely not." The coroner looked at Josh with mild interest. "Private investigator
" He frowned. "I thought you would have to be a little more than that. CIA maybe. Or maybe I just watch too much television."
Josh slipped his hand into his pocket and looked away before meeting the coroner's gaze. "American? How do you know that?"
"Assumption on my part, but look at this." He pulled down the sheet, exposing the cadaver's torso, and pointed at her belly button. A steel stud pierced her navel; the steel was offset only by the red, white and blue of the American flag.
"Maybe," Josh said doubtfully. "But she might be a wannabe, too."
"Yeah, I know. Or her boyfriend was or, or
Still comes down to an unidentified body."
He straightened, turning to face Josh. "'Course, tattoos, earrings." He trailed off, looking pointedly at the metal ace of spades in Josh's left ear. "Are rather a dime a dozen." He shook his head. "Don't understand it much. Must be the generation gap." An overhead fan kicked on. "What's this girl done? Any ideas on why someone murdered her?"
"Nothing that I know of." Josh flexed his fingers as he looked at the sad, lifeless figure. He reached over and took the corner of the sheet and pulled it up over her breasts. "Wrong place. Wrong time."
"Seems a little more than wrong place and time. Someone torched her apartment, but not before killing her." The coroner coughed into his gloved hand. "Heard that the original lease is in a different name, sublet. Can't get hold of the girl who signed the lease to tell us who she sublet to. Traveling Europe or some such idiocy."
"Just a minute." Josh held up his forefinger before turning his back and taking a few steps away. He pulled out the cell phone he'd bought at a local convenience store and hit Redial. "Yeah, Victor. I'll be there in a half hour, maybe less." He slipped the phone back into his pocket.
"Well, I suppose we'll know who she is soon enough." The coroner slid the drawer containing the body back into place and out of sight.
Twenty minutes later, Josh stepped over the charred threshold of the ruined apartment building. Outside, the cinder brick exterior was still intact but inside was a gutted mess. Water dripped from the ceiling and the acrid smell of burned plastic mixed with wood smoke and other synthetics.
He covered his mouth with the back of his hand and coughed.
"Josh Sedovich." Victor Chong held out his hand. It was a quick shake, more a formality than one with any feeling.
"Chong." He shook the man's hand for the second time that day. "Still can't convince you that a private investigator might get you more information than this team of officials you're set on?"
"No more than you could this morning."
"Definitely a case of arson," Victor confirmed with a shake of his head. His safety helmet was tucked under his arm and there were smudges of soot across his cheek. His dark hair was matted to his head and it was obvious that he had spent a great deal of time inside the smoking and charred remains. "Have you seen the body?"
"And?" Victor arched a brow. "Was she the girl you're looking for? Your lost person?"
"No idea who she might be, but she isn't who I'm looking for." He glanced beyond Victor into the small studio apartment where she'd lived.
"Can't imagine hunting missing persons day in and day out. No variety."
"It's a job like any other," he said shortly.
"Now if that wasn't a false statement," Victor replied. "People go missing for all sorts of reasons, and I'll bet you've seen them all. So, best-case scenario that she's not in the morgue yet. I mean the one you're looking for. Obviously, the other. Well, we both know where she is."
"Best-case scenario, it wasn't her," Josh agreed, turning to look at the damage the fire had done. "Too bad about the identification bit. You would have made my job easier."
Victor shrugged. "Although identification isn't my problem, I still wouldn't mind having one up on Detective Tay. He's a prideful bugger, always rubbing my nose in it."
Josh stepped around Victor, his gaze taking in the cheaply papered walls, the hint of a vine pattern only partially concealed by soot and smoke. The tiny apartment was pretty much ruined. The water had destroyed what the fire hadn't.
"Interesting that the body wasn't burned at all. Now it's just a matter of getting the right people to view her. And then we'll get that damn ID."
Josh breathed lightly as he stepped into the room. Victor carried on his one-way conversation as he followed. The smell of smoke was more intense here as it saturated the air and bit harshly into his sinuses. His stomach rolled. He looked with envy at the mask Victor donned as he stepped over a pool of water and sodden books that were scattered around a fallen bookcase.
The dull red spine of a hard cover copy of Wuthering Heights lay across the top of a box of paperbacks whose bright and torrid covers curled and swelled. The classic was like an old dog in the midst of a pack of pups. He skirted a small, nondescript, collapsed wooden tablemore cardboard than wood, the kind purchased in discount box storesand walked over to a small desk that stood untouched except for the damp soot that clung to it. The desk was different from the other furniture in the room. It looked older and had character. The patina was richer and darker, the legs had deep scrolls carved into them that swirled through the wood. He slipped on a glove and opened a side drawer. There was nothing but a collection of elastic bands, tape, pens and blank notepads. The heat had not gotten to this part of the room. He did a quick take of the other side drawer. This time it opened to a small line of files. His fingers flitted quickly through them, stopped and went back. From the corner of his eye he saw Victor watching. He wasn't sure how long Victor would allow his surreptitious view of the apartment before demanding that the fire investigative team and police take over. It was a lull in the investigation. The fire had only been out a few hours, and Josh was taking full advantage as he had done in other crime scenes in other countries throughout the world. It was all about speed and timing. He left the files and moved to the middle drawer.
He took out a blue leather folder and pushed the metal release. The folder opened; nothing was inside. He glanced over his shoulder. Victor was not looking. His attention went to the bottom side drawer, and his fingers skimmed quickly through the files.
He flipped through papers in a cardboard file. Emptyexcept one small sheet and a receipt. Both bore the name Erin and one Erin Kelley.
Tell Mike I took his last advice.
The note was written in a careful script, the letters fine, unlike a more masculine scroll that only confirmed what the signature said. The writer was Erin Kelley, or at least the woman currently calling herself that. The woman who had so recently been Erin Kelley Argon before she'd changed her passport and her last name. A twist of fate twenty-nine years ago had her parents on a business trip in Canada where her mother went into early labor. As a result, Erin qualified for citizenship in that country and when she'd run, she'd taken advantage of it. He took both pieces of evidence, folded them one-handed and slipped them into his pocket. He closed the drawer and opened the middle drawer and retraced the fine line he'd felt earlier. He pushed and something gave. He pulled open the drawer farther to reveal a hidden compartment.
"What do you have?" Victor was beside him. "The authorities only did a cursory look before they took the body away. And I just got here. So anything you can do to make our job easier." He pulled the thin edge of his moustache with a troubled look. "Although, really, I shouldn't be letting you do this."
Josh ignored the man as he took out an American driver's license and a passport. He flipped open the passport and it only confirmed what the first piece of ID had already told him. "Here's your identification. Emma Whyte. She had it well hidden against thieves."
"By jove. Good work, old chap."
Josh grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. "Since when did you become a Brit, Vic?"
Victor scowled and glanced at his watch.
"What time is it?"
"It's been a long day. I'll leave you to it," Josh said. "She's obviously not the woman I was looking for."
"Good luck!" Victor told him genially.
Josh stepped over the threshold, seemingly empty-handed. Once outside, he dialed the number that would be in service for only a few more hours.
"It's not her," he said. "But she was here. Whoever the bastard is that they have on her tail, he now knows her last location."
"What's the matter? You sound off."
"Could be the last two years have been pretty much on the road."
"What, you're telling me you don't love it?"
"Not that much. After this, Vern, I need a vacation. I need to go home."
"To the RV? Josh you're not a family man and you live in a trailer."
His hand went into his pocket, his thumb smoothing the worn bead of a dime-store earring. "It's home, Vern. And family or not, it's time for me to take a break."
He dropped the earring back into his pocket as a door slammed across the street. He walked away from the apartment building and around the corner to where an alley gave him a discreet view of the comings and goings around the apartment. "What gives with this case, Vern? There's another body. A woman. Every bloody assignment
I'm so damned sick of seeing women dead. At least this time she wasn't raped. Not that that is any better. Dead is dead."
"You're taking it personally," Vern Ferguson, the director of Josh's branch in the CIA said.
He turned away from the street and looked down the tight, concrete-bordered alley. Sometimes it was hard not to take it personally. He drew in a breath, held it a few seconds longer than necessary. "You said you have something new? What is it, Vern?" His gaze roamed the areathe overflowing garbage bin, the tiger-striped dog snuffling through the refuse. "I don't think there's much time. We could be talking hours, minutes. Who knows?"
"Intelligence has her in Georgetown, Malaysia."
"Georgetown. Damn it, Vern. Too bad you didn't have that for me sooner. You know the Anarchists don't waste time. They're not just any biker gang. As it is she's been running for five months."
"Yeah, I know," Vern said with a hitch in his voice that was part wheeze, part cough. "She's tired and with the trial going forward, they won't stop."
"Right, and they want her dead, and odds are they're on their way. Fortunately, no one knows where in Georgetown yet."
"Then quit wasting time on the damn phone." Josh grimaced as he clicked off and tossed the phone into a nearby garbage can.
* * *
Georgetown, MalaysiaMonday, October 12
"Give Respect, Get Respect." Erin Kelley repeated the words as she wrote the phrase on the chalkboard and ended with a sweeping flourish. Her fingers shook and she had to stop. She ran her tongue along her lower lip, her back to the class. But even writing the word respect sent a slight tremor through her. The chalk dust clung uncomfortably to her sweaty palm.
The temperature was unseasonably warm and this early in the morning the heat was already unbearable in the small, cramped room. A finger of light skittered across the blackboard, briefly illuminating the words. She mentally shrank from the light as if under a searchlight, as if they'd found her after all these months. Impossible, she reminded herself as the chalk sweated in her hand, and the children shifted anxiously behind her. And as she had done so many times before, she reminded herself that she was safe, that her trail was cold. Enough time had elapsed. They'd never find her. They were no longer interested. And as she did at odd times throughout any given day, she considered the truth of those beliefs and whether she was really safe, whether these children were safe. One day, she knew, despite her hopes, the answer would have her on the run again but that wasn't today.
She put down the chalk and turned to face the class.
"Today, we're going to learn about respect," she said in English. The school's curriculum was taught in English to children who were already bilingual, fluent in both Malay and English, and who, in many cases, if they hadn't already, would master a third or even fourth language in their lifetime.
At the back of the room a heavyset boy shifted in his seat. Beside him, a sullen-faced classmate shuffled papers across his desk. And at the front one boy whispered furtively to another. The rest of the boys eyed her uneasily. They knew what was coming. There wasn't a boy who had missed the taunting in the schoolyard and not one who didn't know what was going to happen as a result. She had made it all perfectly clear from her first day.