Breaking Cover

an excerpt



Chapter 1


A thin-sounding version of the theme from Dragnet woke Jared MacLean out of a sound sleep. With a reflex now becoming practiced, he reached for his cell phone in the charger on the nightstand with one hand and put the other hand over his bed partner's mouth. His lover said a muffled "Mmph?" against his palm, while MacLean flipped the phone open.

"Hey, Mac, you awake?" Oliver's voice said in his ear, much too alertly for whatever damned hour of morning it was.

"Am now," Mac muttered. He glanced over at where Tony lay, eyes now open and shining in the faint light from the clock radio. Tony nodded slightly and Mac withdrew his hand.

"Well, drag yourself out of bed and tell her you have to go," Oliver's voice ordered him. "We've got a dead one."

"Tell who what?" Mac asked. It was too early for what passed as his police partner's sense of humor.

"The gal you've been banging. The one who has you coming in with a smile on your face lately. Tell her there's no rest for homicide detectives and get your butt in gear."

"There's no girl in my fucking bed," Mac grumbled. "No fucking girl in my bed either." Not that there was no fucking in his bed, but he was not about to admit that to his partner.

"If you say so. Here's the address." Oliver reeled off a street location. Mac recognized the area as one of the rougher Minneapolis neighborhoods. "Second floor, apartment twenty-two. Female victim, related to something we've worked on. That's all I have so far. I'll see you there."

Mac shut his phone and stretched, wincing at the tightness in his shoulders. His muscles were stiff from a few too many laps in the community pool yesterday. There were reasons he hadn't wanted to get out of the water. As long as he was waist-deep, no one would notice where his, um, interests lay. Swim trunks could only hide so much.

The cause of his reluctance sat up in bed next to him. The faint light outlined a very nice, bare, twenty-five-year-old body. A body that had looked much too good in a pair of swim trunks yesterday. Tony's dark hair was cut shorter for summer, but those black curls were still sleep-tousled above steady blue eyes. If Mac turned on the light, he would see the blush of too much sun on Tony's fair skin. And that soft, full mouth... Mac glanced away.

"That was your work calling," Tony said. It wasn't a question. They knew each other's personalized ring tones by now.

"Yep. Oliver says we've got a case. I have to go."

Tony glanced at the clock. "Three AM. No chance you'll be back this morning then. Will I see you tonight?"

"If not, I'll call," Mac promised. "I'll probably be pretty late." He leaned over and kissed Tony softly, opening his mouth a little. Tony slid his arms around Mac's neck and leaned pliantly against him. The lightly-muscled body that Mac enjoyed was warm and willing. But when Mac pulled back, Tony let go immediately. So far he'd been pretty understanding about the demands of Mac's job. So far.

"Stay safe," Tony told him.

Mac kissed him again, hard and fast. "Go back to sleep." He rolled out of bed before his body could think about how nice it would be to lie back down.

Mac took the fastest shower on record, just enough to wash the smell of last night's sex off his skin. Oliver had started bugging him for details of his love life. No point in giving him ammunition. Ten minutes later he was dressed and out the door, hair still wet. The water dripping on his neck felt good in the muggy heat of Minneapolis in July, especially since he had to wear a regular shirt over his T-shirt to cover his holster. People associated Minnesota with frigid cold, and there was no doubt that January could freeze your breath on your face. What people didn't realize was that the summer could rival the southern states for heat and humidity. Even in the early morning darkness, the air on his skin was steamy. This place did four seasons with a vengeance. Oh well, it kept down the tourists.

His car was parked on the street, a couple of blocks down. He made a practice of moving it around, staying out of the building parking lot. Not that he expected to ever get noticed, but still. It was no one's business where he spent his nights.

The car was a junker, but it started smoothly. What money he did put into it went into engine maintenance. Dents were irrelevant. Starting immediately in all kinds of weather was what counted. He pulled out onto the dark, quiet street.

The building Mac was looking for turned out to be a run-down wooden house, tucked back behind another larger firetrap of a building. GPS on his phone got him in the ballpark, and then he was clued in by the patrol cars on the street. None of the buildings in this neighborhood seemed to have visible street numbers.

He badged himself past the uniformed cop manning the perimeter and entered the front door. Like many of these old houses, the place had seen better days. The design of the entry showed that at some recent date it had been divided into apartments. He went up the stairs and followed the sound of his partner's voice. Oliver was chewing someone out in a tight, irritated tone. When Mac showed his face at the door, Oliver broke it off and came over to him.

"What have we got?" Mac asked.

"Woman by the name of Terri Brand, twenty-six, found in her bed by that girl," Oliver pointed at a sobbing blonde sitting on the floor, "Who has not spoken a word of sense since she called 911. Body is in the next room. At a guess, strangled and then stabbed in the chest sometime during the evening, but we're still waiting for the ME to get here and give us an official word on that."

"Strangled and stabbed?" Mac said.

"Yeah." Oliver ran a hand over his face. "Sounds familiar, right? That's why you and I got the call."

Mac nodded silently. A month earlier they had caught a case like that; a young woman strangled, the mark of brutal hands around her neck, then stabbed in the chest after she was dead. That case had been stone cold from the start. The woman was known to be promiscuous and frequently brought men home. The body wasn't found for days. They had semen from that case and a DNA match would be a lock, but they never had even a hint of a suspect to make a comparison to. Physical evidence was great for a conviction, but it was almost no help in telling you where to look. They had enough to know they were looking for someone male and probably Caucasian, who did not have DNA already in the system. Which left about a million suspects in this city alone.

"Does this look the same?" Mac asked.

"Yep. Down to the body being naked and posed."

"Fuck," Mac said succinctly. Unless the two victims knew each other somehow, everyone would be thinking serial killer. And everyone just might be right. Not what they needed in a city tense and irritable from a week of extreme heat.

"You talk to her," Oliver ordered, pointing at the blonde. "I've got the scene." He stalked towards the bedroom.

Mac walked over and stood looking at the crying girl. She could be anywhere from sixteen to twenty. She was probably fairly pretty when her face wasn't red and tear-streaked. Her blond hair was long and clean, but whatever style there might have been was erased by the tug of her clenched hands. She was dressed in something sequined and skimpy. Nowadays, though, that didn't mean hooker. Mac had seen twelve-year-old school kids wearing clothes that would have been over-the-top on a streetwalker ten years ago. At least this girl was maybe legal age.

She sniffled and moaned, and unclenched one of her hands from her hair to rub the back of it over her nose. Mac reached into his pocket, pulled out a clean tissue, and passed it over.

"Here," he said in his best soothe-the-witness voice. "Why don't we go somewhere more comfortable and have a talk."

"I've got no place else to go," the girl sobbed, wiping at her eyes. "I got nothing else." She wrapped her arms around her middle and rocked convulsively back and forth.

"Okay. It's okay. We can talk right here. Why don't you tell me your name."

"Lacey," she whispered. "Lacey Henderson."

"Okay, Lacey." He sat on the floor so he wasn't looming over her. "Why don't you just tell me what happened tonight."

"I don't know what happened!" she wailed. "I don't know. It can't be...she can't be..."

"Hush, easy now. I just want to know your story. You came over here and found her, and called 911. That was good. That was the right thing to do. Why were you here?"

"I live here," Lacey moaned. "At least I did. Terri was letting me crash with her, you know."

"Why were you coming home so late?"

The girl's face got even redder. "I was at a party. There was this guy. But then he said I couldn't stay, so I came home. But the busses don't run much at night, so it took forever, and now she's dead!" She snorted loudly into the tissue. Mac began to have a little sympathy for his partner's frustration, but kept it out of his voice.

"What time did you leave the party?"

"I don't know. Maybe one-thirty? Maybe one. I can't remember."

"And what time did you get home?"

"About two? Maybe two-thirty." She sniffled. "You guys should know. I called right away. I mean, her door was open, and she was just there naked, and she never would do that, and I could see she was dead and all. God, I just freaked! I screamed and screamed. Joan came over from next door, but she made me call 911 and then she left! She left me alone with that! And there's blood and, oh, God!"

"It's okay," Mac repeated. "You're doing fine. Did you touch Terri at all, or go in her room?"

"God, no. Why would I do that?"

"Well, to see if she was really dead, or..."

"No!" the girl whimpered. "No, no, no, no, no. I didn't go near her. I couldn't."

"Did you see anyone leaving the apartment or the building as you were coming in?"

"No, nobody."

"How about earlier?" Mac asked. "Did you talk to Terri about her plans for the evening? Did she say who she was going to be with?"

"She was going out to a bar," Lacey said. "I don't know which one. I told her I was going to be home late because of the party and she told me that was good, because she was hoping to get lucky. Oh, God, she told me to be careful!"

"You don't know who she was seeing?"

"No. I mean, I don't think she had someone particular in mind, you know. She liked to go out and meet guys. She was so friendly, and, you know. She liked a good time."

"How often did she bring a strange guy home?"

"I don't know. Sometimes." Lacey rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand again. "Maybe once a week or so. She wasn't a slut you know. She just liked men. They went away friendly, mostly."

"Did she have a boyfriend? Someone she was seeing more than once?"

"I don't think so. I've only known her, like, a month, but I never saw anyone. She used to say she liked a hot dick in bed, but not some slob farting up the place around the breakfast table. I think maybe someone was bad to her once. But she didn't talk about it. Oh, God! She didn't..."

Mac waited out another burst of sobbing. When she subsided, he went on, "When did you see her last, to talk to?"

"After work, around six. We were getting ready to go out. She loaned me this shirt, and helped with my hair. Oh, God, it was like she was my big sister and now she's dead. Oh, God. Oh, Jesus." The girl broke down crying again.

Mac straightened up and walked over to a female officer standing by the door to the apartment. "You take charge of the roommate," he told her, dumping the sobbing witness on the uniform without regret. "Make sure she has a place to stay, and get the address and her phone number, because we'll need to talk to her again. While you're at it, check her driver's license and make sure she's eighteen. If she's a minor, we'll need to handle it differently." Mac left the unfortunate officer crouched down beside Lacey, trying to deal with her.

Mac headed for the bedroom, steeling himself inwardly. He knew his thoughts didn't show. He'd learned to make sure of that. But even though he could walk onto the bloodiest scene without seeming to turn a hair, he never quite got used to it. He couldn't lose his awareness that the cooling, abused flesh was someone's mother, sister, child, lover; was so recently a living person with thoughts and dreams and hopes for the future.

The murdered dead were his responsibility. Sometimes he almost felt them hovering at his elbow, waiting for whatever he could give them. Justice perhaps. Meaning, redemption. The reassurance that although they had died, the killer was caught and would never hurt anyone else. That in some small way their death was not in vain. That was his job, and he was good at it.

Of course, no matter how good you were-and he and Oliver were damned good-you couldn't solve them all. Or worse, you might know who was guilty and fail to prove it. Those ghosts hovered too, maybe fading over time as hope of justice faded. At occasional moments, their weight was heavy. Mac wondered, as he stepped into the small, stuffy bedroom, what kind of case Terri Brand would turn out to be.

Oliver had his sketchpad out, drawing the scene. They would have the official photographs and diagrams, but Oliver liked to have his own interpretation. He had an uncanny ability to focus in on the relevant details in the most chaotic scene.

Which this was not. Nothing in the room looked out of place. Clothes were folded neatly on a chair. The body of the victim lay on the bed, naked but composed. Her arms were outstretched, her feet together, almost in a crucifixion pose. Purple-red mottling on her neck, bloodshot eyes, and the color of her face made the cause of death clear. A small patch of blood on her naked chest, at the top of her left breast, presumably marked the stab wound.

Mac went over to look more closely. There wasn't much blood. The previous victim had been stabbed well after her death too. Without a beating heart, bleeding stops.

"Did you get anything out of that hysterical girl?" Oliver asked without turning.

"Victim was planning to go out to a bar," Mac reported. "She liked to bring men home. Last seen alive here around six. No known boyfriends."

"Like the other one."

"Yeah."

"Shit." Oliver muttered.

"Yeah."

"I'm guessing we'll have DNA here too. Should be simple to match, if it really is the same guy."

"And if it is the last guy they fucked that killed them," Mac added.

"Stands to reason."

"We'll be in trouble once the press gets hold of this, if there is a match," Mac pointed out.

"So the more we get done first, the better. You take the neighbors. Wake ‘em up. If that girl was this loud when she found the body, there's probably not one of them actually slept through it anyway. The walls in this place are paper. Maybe someone heard something useful. As soon as the damned techs get here and do their thing I'll start on the victim's papers. Workplace, address book, maybe we'll get lucky and find someone who was out with her tonight and saw the guy."

Mac began canvassing on the ground floor, reasoning that anyone who tried to leave to avoid questioning would have to come past him. The apartment below the victim's was occupied by a newly immigrated family from the Sudan. Between the parents' poor grasp of English, and their obvious terror of the police, Mac got nothing. He made a note to send a black officer with an interpreter next day, although the chance they would learn anything useful even then was slim.

The west ground floor unit yielded an elderly man with a hearing aid, and a wealth of opinions that poured out over the top of Mac's own words. Either the old fart had his hearing aid off, or he just wasn't interested in anything but the sound of his own voice. Mac made a few attempts to ask questions, then gave up and let the man rant. The man described the victim as an empty-headed slut and finally admitted to having slept through the relevant time frame without hearing anything. Mac backed away from his querulous demands that the police do something and moved on to the next door.

The east room was inhabited by a woman Mac decided actually was a pro. She was distressed by the idea that a killer had been in her building, but seemed more worried for her own safety than helpful. She claimed to have been watching a video with headphones on. When Mac asked why she was still up at that hour, she gave him a knowing grin and quipped, "There ain't no rest for the wicked." Any further questions only seemed to result in her making a pass at him. He left her door before the touch of her hand became something he would have to take notice of.

Back on the second floor, the east door was closed, and no one answered even Mac's loudest knock. As he was making a note to try again later, the west door opened.

"You'd better come in before you break something." The speaker was a tall, thin woman in baggy shorts and a brief red terrycloth robe, standing in the open doorway "There's no one in there tonight. They're out of town for the weekend."

Mac nodded. "I'm Detective MacLean with the Minneapolis PD." He showed his shield. "I'd like to ask you a few questions."

"I know who you are," the woman replied. "I've been watching. I don't just invite a strange man into my room, unlike Terri." A fleeting look of embarrassment crossed her face. "I guess that's a petty thing to say, under the circumstances."

"What do you know about the circumstances?"

"I was with Lacey when she called the cops. I saw Terri's body. Actually, I checked her for a pulse, just to be sure, since all that air-headed blonde could do was stand there and scream. But she was dead and cooling already."

"You seem pretty calm about this."

"Only by comparison," the woman returned. "Come on in. I'm not standing around in the hallway in my nightclothes."

Mac thought she was pretty well covered, all things considered, but he followed her in and let her close the door. Her apartment was the mirror image of the victim's, but much more tidy and sparsely furnished. There were lots of books and a couple of tasteful prints. For a woman's place, there were remarkably few rugs, no throw pillows, no froufrou. A simple futon and chair made up the bulk of the furnishings. The woman waved Mac to the futon and perched on the edge of the chair. Mac got out his notebook and pencil.

"Your name?"

"Joan Peters."

"You live here alone?"

"Yes," the woman said, more tartly than he thought his question deserved. "I do."

"Tell me about tonight," Mac invited. "Start about six PM. Where were you?"

"I was in the library studying. Until about seven. I got home around seven-thirty. I didn't see Terri, or anyone else for that matter, when I got home. I made dinner and then settled in with my books. Around ten or so, I heard Terri come home. I assumed she was with a man, from her giggles, but if so his voice was quiet. It was only an inference, you understand. She was a lot louder and more bubbly with a man around."

"You never saw the man or heard his voice?"

"I don't even know for sure that there was a man," Joan said firmly. "Like I said, it was a guess. I didn't actually hear anyone else come or go. I went to bed about eleven, and woke up at two-thirty-six, when Lacey began screaming."

"You're certain of the time?" Mac asked.

"Oh, yes. I looked at my alarm in disbelief. But then I decided there was something...serious about her voice so I went to look."

"What did you see?"

"Terri's front door was open, Lacey was having hysterics in the living room and Terri was lying naked in her bedroom, bruised up and staring."

"But you went in anyway?" Mac asked.

"Of course. She might have still been alive. I know CPR. But she wasn't."

"Did you touch anything other than her body?"

"I don't think so," Joan said. "The door was wide open. I can't guarantee I didn't touch the bed somewhere but I don't think so. So I made Lacey call 911."

"You didn't stay with her." Mac let his voice make that a question.

"No," Joan admitted, coloring a little. "I'm no good with people, especially hysterical people. And she wanted to cling onto me and weep. I figured you would come talk to me eventually."

"Do you think Lacey was in Terri's room before you came?"

"You couldn't have gotten her into that room if Terri was bleeding to death before her eyes," Joan said. "Silly cow."

"You don't like her."

"I don't really have anything against her. Except that she's the kind of helpless clinging female that gives women a bad name. She wants someone to take care of her, so she doesn't have to grow up. Terri let her move in temporarily a month ago, and it would have taken a team of wild horses, or maybe a rich boyfriend, to get her back out."

"So you don't think she would have had anything to do with killing Terri?"

"Never," Joan said definitely. "Not only did she practically faint at the sight of blood, but Terri was her meal ticket. Lacey was paying a few bucks rent, but doing precious little else in return for sleeping on the couch every night and eating Terri's food."

"It sounds like you liked Terri," Mac commented.

"Better than Lacey," Joan said begrudgingly. "Terri was all right. She wasn't very smart, and she had no self esteem, but she was good natured. Liked to believe the best of everyone."

"Would it have been unusual for her to bring a man home with her?"

"No. Pretty standard for a Saturday night."

"Did she ever talk to you about the men, who they were or where she went to meet them?"

"Sometimes," Joan said. "I can try to come up with the names of a few bars she went to. We weren't friends, though. We didn't have heart-to-heart chats or anything. Just sometimes in the hall she would say something like, ‘I picked up this cute guy at The Caboose last night, but he was a flop in the sack.' And I would nod and get out of there fast before she felt compelled to tell me more."

"Did she say where she was going last night?"

"Not to me."

"How about before last night," Mac asked. "Did she mention any boyfriends? Anyone who might have wanted to see her more than once, or who had been angry with her?"

"I don't know any names. I think there was a guy about a year ago, around when I first moved in. She said something about dumping a guy. How he was cheating on her and was no good. She didn't seem scared, though. I don't remember. I wasn't interested and I didn't even know her then. I haven't seen anyone more than once recently."

"Can you think of anything else that might help me?"

"No," Joan said flatly. "I have no idea who would have done this. I assume she picked up the wrong man. It was always a risk, with the way she lived."

Mac asked her to write out the names of any bars she had heard mentioned, and she came up with a list of four. As he tucked it into his notebook, he said, "I have to ask. Why are you living here? You don't seem to fit the neighborhood profile."

"I'm a student. Temporarily no money, and I got a deal on this place through a friend."

"What are you studying?"

Joan stood up and opened the door for him, her color a little high. "Mortuary science at the U," she said. "Which makes me unlikely to get hysterical over a dead body. Good night, detective."

Mac stared at the closed door. A bigger contrast to Lacey was hard to imagine. Women were sometimes like a foreign species, he thought. They had more range than men. However, tonight he was looking for a man.

You're always looking for a man, his inner voice quipped.

Not anymore, Mac told it. I've found one. He started up the stairs to the third floor, thinking about Tony warm and asleep in his bed. And about how it was somehow becoming their bed. Both of them in the past had played pick-up roulette, bringing men they hardly knew back to a room. Tony claimed to have done so rarely, but it had been Mac's style for ten years, until now. The risks had been there, especially for Tony, who wasn't six-two and two hundred pounds. No more, Mac thought. Tony was safe with him. But how many women out there were at risk, if he didn't solve this one? He hoped for a miracle on the third floor, but didn't get one.