Staring at the wall-screen, Rick regarded the prostitutes whose fingerprints had been all over the last murder scene...assuming, of course, that Mr. James had, indeed, been the victim of some outré scheme. "They hardly look the stuff of conspiracy," he murmured.
Not aware he had spoken aloud, Rick jumped slightly as Walt D'Angelo edged closer and gazed at the four women he had rounded up. "They're good girls. Known them for years. They know their place. Hell, they even help us out on occasion."
"Help you out?" Rick asked dubiously.
"Oh, come on," the detective said incredulously. "Surely you Northern boys aren't reluctant to use informants or the occasional volunteer?"
Waving a hand, Rick said, "So you know these women well?"
D'Angelo smiled. "Not that well. I'm a one-lady man. Nan would kill me if I did more than flirt with the likes of these."
"Hell, no! Won't catch me in that trap. Bad enough what they take from a single guy's check. Legally tie yourself to a woman and watch the dollars flow."
Perusing his comp-pad, Rick scanned the files of these suspects. Nothing too horrendous. New New Orleans would run out of jail space in a week if they incarcerated every man, woman, boy, and girl who peddled his or her wares outside the legally sanctioned channels. As long as these perpetrators produced their ID cards and forked over a sufficient percentage of their livelihood to their leaders, they could expect to endure only the normal tribulations of daily life in modern America...plus the occasional "favor" for those who might make their lives legally miserable should the necessity or mood arise.
"I don't want to spend all day here," Rick said sourly. "I'll take this Janet Caldwell. You take Murdock. Whoever finishes first can question Wilson or Tompkins."
"Sure. Whatever you say."
Without comment, Rick watched the sergeant motion Janet Caldwell into the small, sparsely furnished interrogation room. The prostitute sat on an orange plastic chair across the table from him and looked around as the door clicked shut.
"Where's Detective D'Angelo?" the woman said suspiciously.
"Interviewing one of your friends. Why?"
With a disgruntled expression, Janet rolled her eyes. "Never mind. I should have known."
Rick let that pass.
Caldwell did not fit the stereotype most citizens harbored of streetwalkers. Not gorgeous yet hardly a visage to scare children, either. In a more conservative outfit, she could easily have passed as a secretary for a minor bureaucrat or a waitress in a modest restaurant. Of course, most prostitutes shared certain personality characteristics: a lack of normal inhibitions, a brashness designed to hide a basic flaw in self-esteem, a ready sociability that never quite reached their gaze...
While he could not quite pin down which nonverbal cues led him to his impression, Rick nonetheless felt that here sat a woman out of place in her chosen profession. From her record, she had obviously been practicing for years. Yet she seemed more to be playing a role than living a career. The eyes perhaps...or the way she shifted her weight...
"How long did you know Franklin James?" Rick asked abruptly.
Caldwell's delicate brows wrinkled. "Who?"
"The man you slept with before murdering."
The prostitute -- somehow "whore" evoked the wrong connotations to fit this woman -- opened her eyes wide. "Whoa there!" she said hastily, spreading her hands. "I may not be the most upstanding citizen in the world, but I didn't murder anyone."
"Of course not," Rick said indulgently. "That's why your prints were found all over the victim's body."
Vigorously shaking her head, Caldwell said, "Not me, mister. I didn't touch any dead body. If anybody says they found my prints there, he's a damned liar."
"We have your prints all over the room," Rick said leaning on the table. "Prints don't lie."
"I don't know about prints, but somebody's surely lying if they're saying they found mine on a corpse."
Rick pretended to study his comp-pad. "Says right here, prints matching yours. On the bed frame, two glasses, a bottle, elsewhere about his room at the Riverview."
The prostitute expelled a breath and sagged back. "Oh. Is that all. Of course my prints are around. I bring customers there all the time."
"And Franklin James never availed himself of your services?"
Caldwell lifted a brow. "The name sounds familiar, but..." A lopsided smile pulled at her lips. "I don't make a habit of memorizing all my customers' names. Unless they're regulars, of course."
"Franklin James. One of the most prominent businessmen in the state. Died just a few days ago. You never heard of him?"
"Oh! That's the guy everyone's talking about. Died happy, I hear. Wearing a tingler."
"You're acquainted with tinglers?"
"No more than anyone else. I know they're illegal."
"And, of course, you'd never be involved in anything illegal."
The woman fluttered her fingers. "Oh! I tremble at your witty, rapier-like sarcasm." Dropping her forearms onto the table, she thinned her mouth to a hard line. "Look...Detective...I support myself and don't go begging for handouts, even if all my business transactions aren't registered on my ID. That's more than a lot of your 'decent' citizens can say. When people like you make everything an issue of law for the politicians to dip their wicks into, doesn't leave much wiggle room for people like me who just want to be left...the hell...alone." Fire glimmered in her eyes as she locked gazes with her interrogator.
Despite himself, a part of Rick bristled at the accusation. "I don't make the laws," he said evenly.
Caldwell pushed herself away. "Yeah. You and D'Angelo. Just doing your jobs."
Her hard tone struck Rick with the sharpness of a stone. Being lumped together with D'Angelo did not set well. He started to deny the accusation then closed his mouth.
Were those words an accusation? Or merely a statement of the truth? Neither offered an option he cared to accept.
"Look," he said with a trace of exasperation. "I don't want to be here any more than you do. The sooner I track down whoever's responsible for this mess, the sooner I can head home. As far as I'm concerned, what you choose to do with your life is up to you. But until and unless I can figure out if murder is involved here and can bring the guilty party to justice, your presence in the rented room of the late Mr. James makes you a suspect. You can cooperate with me or you can spend some time as a guest of the Governor. That's up to you."
More agitated than he cared to be, Rick clutched his comp-pad and stared at the woman who had managed to stab a nerve.
Caldwell considered his ultimatum. "Fine. I don't know anything myself, but..." She glanced about the room as though to confirm their seclusion.
"I've got the recorder on," Rick said.
The woman frowned and shook her head.
A moment passed. Rick grunted and flipped a switch. "There. The recorder's off."
Seconds stretched in silence.
"Fine." Reaching under the table, Rick set down a hush-field generator and palmed it on. A faint vibration filled the air. "There. Happy?"
"I can take you to some people who might have...heard something."
"You've got to do better than that."
Caldwell shrugged. "Suit yourself."
While another investigator might have rigged the evidence to place this woman at the crime scene, Rick did not work that way. And, sad to say, there were no recognizable prints on the victim's body...other than James's own. "What are you offering?"
"It'll take me a day to arrange, but these...people...might hold some information useful to you."
"I know where you live..."
"Hey! No need to threaten me. Give me your number, and I'll call you tonight, say around ten. Should be able to set something up for tomorrow."
On impulse, Rick decided. "Fine. But don't disappoint me."
"I never do that," she said. "Just ask any of my many satisfied customers."
As Rick switched off the hush-field, he wondered if the late Mr. James would agree.
Walt D'Angelo narrowed his eyes as he watched Teresa Murdock, Sally Wilson, and Bettyjean Tompkins disappear down the sidewalk with no more concern in their steps than if they'd just visited their manicurist. Their pleas of ignorance as to the fate of Franklin James had never wavered. If the detective had entertained an inkling they held any pieces of this puzzle, he would unhesitantly have progressed to more...intense...persuasive techniques.
Nothing in their demeanor or the evidence gathered at the crime scene, however, sparked that animalistic determination that had so frequently led him to break a difficult case. He had been far less convinced that Janet Caldwell's protestations of ignorance mirrored an equally innocent reality. Unfortunately, that bastard Beckman had disabled the recorders just when his conversation with the woman had nudged closer to interesting. Normally, that would not have deterred D'Angelo; switches could be rigged. But that hush-field...that had truly stymied him.
She had alluded to knowing nothing herself but being aware of someone else who did...
Shortly after Beckman had released her, the Justice agent had received a call and left the station. A coincidence, perhaps, but still...
Idly, D'Angelo reached for the half-empty pack of cigarettes nestled in his shirt pocket. His hand froze halfway there. He chuckled. He sincerely doubted any of his fellow officers would give a swamp-rat's ass whether he lit a long one or not. To air his private pleasure and vice so openly and flagrantly, however, might force someone to notice and call him in for disciplinary action. He could not deny that appearances mattered, especially when dealing with the public.
After all, weren't such considerations what had motivated Hadaway to contact him in the first place?
Heading for the bathroom where he could indulge in peace, D'Angelo let a brief scowl flit across his broad features.
Damn the man. He provided good money, but he had forgotten his bayou roots. He had lied to the voters of this state for so many years, he had begun to believe his own special brand of bullshit. No denying he held considerable power in his hands. More than a few of his opponents had met with tragic "accidents" of one sort or another over the years, often at D'Angelo's own hands.
Still, the governor had neglected to see through the veil of his own distortions. Power rarely resided so neatly in one man's hands. Even a tyrant ultimately proved a servant of the slaves he ruled. Some day Hadaway would receive a jolt strong enough to knock that superior expression from his over-fed and under-exercised face. For every person bidding for the reins of full authority and control, countless others offered to sell a bit here and a piece there. Singly, those brokers might be less than significant. If they ever coalesced into a cohesive unity, however, the governor would quickly learn the actual source of his might and just how limited his actions truly were.
Closing the glass-fronted bathroom door, D'Angelo stuck a fragrant stick of tobacco between his lips and lit its tip with the steady flame from his gold lighter...a present from one of his...clients.
His lids fluttered in indulgent luxury as he inhaled the acrid smoke deeply into his lungs. Then slowly, savoring every molecule of potent nicotine these Mexican beauties held, he released twin white streams from his nostrils like a medieval dragon.
Three men dead. No. Make that three very prominent, important, and dominant players in the field of Louisiana parish politics. Deceased and disgraced. One death might have been an accident. Two, possibly a coincidence. But three... No. A pattern existed there. Of that, he had no doubt.
Hadaway didn't give a tinker's good goddamned who killed those aging and lecherous farts. Such inconsequentials rarely concerned the governor. The only reason he bothered himself, at all, with this novel New New Orleans crime spree was because each of those deceased fine citizens had had their hands so firmly in the state's coffers. If that fact came to light, embarrassing and potentially damaging problems might well ensue.
Reaching the end of his cigarette, D'Angelo flicked the still glowing butt into the toilet. The tip sizzled briefly and sent up a final streamer of forlorn smoke before turning into a sodden, dark corpse of filter and tobacco dregs.
As he washed his hands, the detective weighed the alternatives.
One, the deaths represented merely a bizarre concatenation of events, each independent; the tinglers from a defective batch which each man had coincidentally and tragically elected to wear.
Two, somebody or -bodies had, indeed -- for whatever personal and arcane motivation -- chosen those clowns for elimination and had (the detective admitted with a touch of admiration) executed them in a clever and ironically appropriate manner. In that case, bring the culprit to justice, and quickly. That way, he, she, or they crumpled under the full and nasty weight of the State judicial apparatus before any outside parties inquired too deeply into those unworthy gentlemen's pasts.
It would not do to have them and their "donations" to modern civic virtue connected too closely to the governor. Not with an election looming over the horizon. While the laid-back citizens of this state would wink and nod at most minor (and many major) transgressions from their leaders, they did not relish being confronted too starkly with the reality of their evasion. Rub their noses in some scandal and those self-same good-ol'-boys would scream the loudest and the thirstiest for blood in order to divert attention from their own dripping hands.
Appearances. The name of the game. Hadaway hoped the pristine purity of Justice Department Detective Ricardo Beckman would quiet those suspicious voices expecting the state to cover-up any wrong-doing. Reveal the truth, of course, but only enough to satisfy political opponents and the great unwashed. Provide the image that justice had been meted out swiftly and surely. The fear and suspicion would then fade away along with any threat of unseemly revelations.
D'Angelo had agreed readily enough to aid in that task. He had been an accomplice to far worse. He suspected option number two would prove the most probable. Help Beckman catch the perps but cut off any attempts to probe too deeply into sensitive body cavities.
The detective stepped into the hallway and headed towards his desk. He regretted being unable to slip a tracer onto Janet before Beckman sent her on her jolly way. With a tired sigh, he settled into his wooden chair. Its creaking added a reassuring reminder of the normalcy he most enjoyed and expected on this job. The occasional wetwork merely kept life from becoming too boring.
But option number three continued to skulk at the edges of his awareness. Like a lurking robber just awaiting the most opportune instant to leap out and crack him upside the head with a wicked hunk of iron pipe, it taunted him.
Number three: as with number two, an unknown party or parties killing preeminent men in a less than dignified manner...and doing so precisely because those movers had intertwined themselves so intricately with the governor. If Hadaway rather than those dead men stood as the murder(s)' ultimate target, then those conspirators would hardly slink away into the swamps once discovered and identified.
No, those criminals would sooner or later publicize their activities. Indeed, that might explain the odd mode of murder they had selected. Rather than a bullet in the brain, poison in a meal, or a brick against the skull, the tinglers had exposed these victims' worst and most flagrant transgressions of polite society's norms.
Deceive when you could, lie when you had to, and deny, deny, deny. A time-honored tradition in a land which honored conservative values.
None of those options would satisfy enemies bent on revealing scandal and corruption. They would count on the public's moralistic outrage to sent the governor whimpering down the highway in disgrace and dishonor.
Drumming his fingers on his cluttered desk, D'Angelo frowned. If option number three reflected the true nature of this case, he faced serious difficulties ahead. Whether he failed or succeeded in limiting Beckman's investigation to the matter at hand, he suspected his future might be artificially and prematurely truncated before this affair concluded. Hadaway had little tolerance for ineptitude when his political life was at stake. The darker waters of the bayou held mute testimony to his unforgiving ruthlessness in that regard.
D'Angelo received much enjoyment from the alligators inhabiting the waterways of his homeland. Still, he did not particularly relish the prospect of fattening one of those eternally grinning reptiles with his own substantial self.
A judicious call or two might be in order. If anyone had to serve as a 'gator's entree, he intended to do all he possibly could to ensure that such a meal would be prepared without him.
His comp-pad held the number he sought. As he rehearsed how best to phrase his message, he reflected that Detective Rick Beckman would not appreciate what his "assistant" planned to do. Of course, what Beckman did not know would not hurt him. Until, that is, it was too late.
"You did what?" Jeff Sandberg froze in mid-step and stared at Janet.
With her long-fingered hands resting on her bare knees, Janet gazed up at him. "I'm telling you, Jeff, he's different. He's not like D'Angelo and the rest of them."
Spreading his arms, Jeff leaned forward and funneled his words into a narrow tunnel of disbelief. "He's a cop, Janet. Cops aren't 'different.' It's them versus us. Surely, after all we've talked about, you realize that. Gov-heads are gov-heads."
An exasperated frown curved Janet's lips. With forced patience, she said, "I know all that. I'm not an idiot, despite what you might think."
Rolling his eyes, Jeff straightened and dug his fingers into his hair. Slowly, he spun in a circle. "I don't think you're... Come on, Janet. Let's not..." Growling, he lowered himself onto the worn fabric of the couch next to his friend. As calmly as he could, he steadied his breathing.
Janet met his gaze with a silent challenge.
Jeff cleared his throat. "We've killed three very influential men already. We'll get more of them if we can. But from the perspective of Beckman and his cronies, we murdered those people. If they can prove that, we won't just be having our ID's pulled. They'll execute us. You, me, and everyone else."
"I'm aware of that. I didn't do this lightly."
Sagging back, Jeff shook his head. "Sure sounds like it to me. You talked with this agent once. During a criminal interrogation. Of you. Why on earth do you trust him?"
Janet shifted uneasily. "I know I can't prove what I'm saying. Hell, I'm not completely convinced myself he can be trusted."
Jeff's eyes widened. "Then what the --"
Holding her palm up to forestall the objection, Janet said, "I told you I'm not stupid. We arrange a secure place to meet. Blindfold him. Scan for tracers or mics. Strip and scrub him down, for all I care. No way he knows where he is or how he got there. We explain what's happening in general terms...no names...and catch his reaction. Maybe we can convince him. We need an ally here, Jeff. If we don't find someone on the inside, we're screwed. Who's going to use our services and accept a tingler after these first three?"
"The news boys haven't reported all the details yet. Maybe..." But Jeff's words did not persuade even himself.
"The grapevine hasn't gotten any slower. The first three jobs were elegant and slick, yes. But if we can seduce even one more bastard to slip on a tingler, I'll be majorly surprised. If we hope to maintain our momentum, we need to shift gears and tactics. Nothing says our overall strategy needs to change."
Tired, Jeff rubbed at his gritty eyes. "Oh, Janet, what have you gotten us into?"
A smile flickered on Janet's face. "I know I need to verify a gut reaction. That's what I'm trying to do here. You said yourself, sometimes your subconscious latches onto cues before you do. I don't want to ignore the reality of my feelings about this guy. I simply want to explore them and see if they have a factual basis or not. Maybe I'm wrong. But maybe I'm not."
"Why would you believe any agreement Beckman made while we have him in our power? He'd agree the sun was purple if it'd help him walk."
"That'd be a calculated risk. But what isn't in life?"
"I don't like it," Jeff said sullenly.
Scooching closer, Janet laid a hand on her friend's arm. "I'm not asking you to. I don't like this much either. This whole operation is a gamble."
"But I don't want to worsen the odds any more than I have to." The words came out too closely to a fearful whine.
"If we can get Beckman to divert attention from us, to pin these tingler murders on someone else or write them off entirely as unsolvable, as accidents, we'll be free to move elsewhere and in a different way. Or maybe he can help us gain access to other potential targets."
"I doubt that. A Yankee? A third-rate flunky cop?" Jeff said, adopting a thick Southern drawl. "Who that matters in the great state of Louisiana would have truck with the likes of him?"
"He knows the governor..."
Jeff glanced sidelong at his companion. "Please. Don't fill my head with fantasies. Might as well wish for the president."
Janet slapped him lightly with her fingertips. "Nice defeatist attitude there."
"We've been through this before. You know as well as I do that we don't stand the chance of a fish in a 'gator's mouth of killing that reptile. Blood never sticks to his hands. The most we can do is give him a bit of indigestion. Someday, maybe, but... You talk about being realistic..."
Janet's expression hardened. Her eyes flashed her annoyance. "'Realistic'? Don't give me that crap. If you place the likelihood of our success so low, why are you even bothering with this? Why don't you do like the rest of the clods in this country?" Her voice took on a falsetto quality. "'Oh, they're just too strong to resist. Nothing will ever change. Why bother? Just accept the way things are. You'll be so much happier.'"
Jumping to her feet, she said, "Well, fuck acceptance! If I thought all this was a pointless exercise in symbolism, I'd never have gotten involved in the first place. You and Cameron started this, remember? You talked and argued and finally demonstrated that I didn't have to eat it all my life. That it's possible to fight back and break free. The way you're going on, you might as well be my parents..."
"Come on, Janet," Jeff said, reaching towards her. "You know that --"
Knocking away his arm, Janet said, "I know I'm in this all the way. I mean to explore every avenue I can until either I reach my goal or my enemies kill me. I don't do anything half-assed. I assumed you didn't either. But then maybe I'm wrong about you, and you're right about Beckman."
Adrenaline flooded Jeff's veins. A part of him wanted to slap her silly for what she said. Another, saner part recognized that his reaction might be due to the sharpness of her marksmanship. To begin treating this business as a game, a role one adopted like a star in a classic movie, loomed as a pitfall all too easy to ignore. If he lost sight of the perilous nature of their enterprise, he might well crash into it and impale himself on the all-too-real stakes buried in the mud below.
"Fine," he said tightly. "I'll back your play. Let's have at the bastards. All channels." His anger twisted itself into a lopsided grin. "We'll take them out even if we have to do it one asshole at a time."
Janet clapped her hands. "Great! I'll attach the re-router and give him a call after we figure out the hows and wheres of the meet. Is Cameron at Nate's Haven...?" She paused. "So what do we do with him if he won't join?"
Jeff motioned towards his computer station and the handful of tinglers piled on one corner of the desk. "If the good detective won't see the error of his ways, then we'll make certain that at least one of those tinglers doesn't go to waste."