My short, murderous, ghostly story SERIAL CHILL is in the Halloween issue of the Journal of Speculative Fiction (2018), published by KYANITE Press.
By Cecily Winter
Con’s hands trembled from excitement when he paused on the threshold of Boston’s upscale Lobster Claw Tavern. His future was here and now.
Spotlights embedded in the black-tin ceiling could have illuminated no fault in his bearing when he settled his new briefcase behind the brass rail and flipped a credit card to the bar. He gestured to the taps. “Lager, please. You serve lunch?”
The Wonder-Woman barkeep in black said, “Not ‘til noon. You got ID?”
Con opened his wallet to flash his license.
“Twenty-three.” She cocked her head. “I’d have sworn you were with the high school kids I flagged a couple of months back.”
She positioned a glass under the tap. Her fingernails were dead ringers for beetle carapaces. A gold cross glistened at her throat, and six identical beauty spots—which turned up the heat big time—trailed down her right cheek to the edge of her upper lip. Maybe early thirties, she was pale, with pale irises. Con took in details the same as Grandma Fearing did when she checked her change for a 1909 VDB Lincoln penny.
“If you want to stay young and good-looking, Conway,” she said, “take the bus back to the Cape.”
He raised his eyebrows. No point telling her he’d quit the family cranberry operation for good. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Let me guess—Gillian Marsh.”
“You must’ve been in before.”
“The chalkboard says she’s the server on duty.”
Her grin dimples sucked in a couple of beauty spots.
“First time in the big city?” She set his drink on a napkin showing a boiled lobster holding a fancy cocktail.
“More or less.”
That grin, those here-and-gone beauty spots.
He figured he’d made exactly the right impression on her until a customer who last showered in sour liquor shuffled in and she dropped Con’s credit card like it burned. She tucked her hands under her armpits and backed out of the swing door behind her. What’d gotten into her?
The newcomer bellied up to the bar and drummed his fingers on the wood. He called, “Service.”
Con liked poking his nose where it didn’t belong. He stepped around the bar and into the kitchen. An Asian guy chopping onions, but no Gillian.
“You see Gillian?” he asked.
The guy jerked a thumb to the door. Through a gap in the kitchen’s blind slats, Con watched her toss a vintage canvas backpack onto the passenger seat of a red Miata. She got in but had trouble starting.
Before he could offer to help, she’d backed up in a squeal of tires. Her vanity plate mnemonic: PeePeeEye, the name’s Bond, James Bond.
The customer hammered the bar. Never one to leave a thirst unquenched, Con stood behind the taps and asked, “What’ll it be?”
“Gimme a vodka-tonic straight up with a twist. A double.” He tossed ten bucks on the counter.
It might’ve covered the tonic. Con fixed the drink but didn’t touch the money. Gillian could be back any minute. He wanted her back.
The customer was chewing on lemon peel when a rugby-shirted bruiser stomped out of a door marked Private and slammed it shut.
“What the dick you doing back here?” he bellowed.
Before Con could explain, the customer raised his head and said, “Need to talk, Steve.”
“Sponge off of me you mean Link.”
Link waved his Hamilton. “I can pay.”
“Clear out and take your money with you,” Steve said.
Link pocketed his cash. “If our mother was alive—”
“Lucky for her she’s not. Find a meeting and don’t come back ’til you’re a year sober with proof.”
Link made off, steadier on his feet than he’d been when he came in.
“So, kid,” Steve said, “what the dick you doing behind my bar?”
“Gillian left all of a sudden. I mixed your brother a drink. He looked rough.”
“He’s always rough. He’s grit in the eye of the world.”
“You’re the manager?”
“Owner,” Steve said. He stuck out a hand. “Steve Norris.”
Con shook hands—a firm grip, no clamminess. “Con Fearing.”
“What did Gillian say before she took off?”
“Not a word. Link came in and she bolted like she was spooked.”
“Link could spook a cockroach. Aren’t you too young to be drinking? Let’s see your license.”
Con slid his ID over the counter and left his wallet open. It was bulky with cards and cash. “Gillian checked it already. You think she’s coming back?”
“Why, you want her job?”
“If it’s on offer maybe.”
“You’d jump in her grave so fast?”
Steve’s face—the fleshy jowls, the pitted nose—advertised a guy on the downslide. Con said, “I’m a natural. Since I was twelve, I’ve gotten plenty of experience. My family always has an excuse to party. A temporary gig would see me through until I get my bearings in Boston.”
Steve swished Link’s glass through water. “Can’t say I’d be sorry to see the back of Gillian. Her eyes cut right through you.” He dried the glass. “House special’s a Mariposa Cocktail. Mix me one, and I’ll see if you’re fit.”
When Con set his mind on the goal, he always scored. He was nothing if not lucky. He collected bottles from the shelves and the juices from the fridge: the drink had been Granddad Fearing’s favorite: rum, brandy, grenadine.
He poured the cocktail over ice and handed Steve the glass. He took one sip and muttered about covering for Gillian until she got in touch. He shoved Con’s credit card across the counter and said, “On the house.”
Which was lucky because he’d screwed up. Unlike his license, his card was in the name of Peter Sutcliffe, one of Con’s alternate identities—dark, like its British namesake.
Steve showed Con how to work the register and steered him around the premises, already familiar on account of Con’s sister’s wedding reception a while back.
“You’ll cover for Gillian today?” Steve asked.
Con removed a nylon poncho from his briefcase. “After I move my ride. Don’t want it towed.”
“No rain in the forecast.”
“I’m a boy scout, always prepared.”
“You can park in back of my lot.”
It took all of three minutes to reach his BMW but far longer to spot Gillian’s Miata.
He was in the right place at the right time when he side-swiped her just hard enough for the impact to register but avoid real damage. Not a single eye-witness.
She stepped clear of her car and strode to meet him, her head cocked in that way she had. He smiled an apology before he dropped her with a wicked headshot. The Starbucks cup in her hand splattered coffee on his poncho as it fell.
He dragged her into the alley, deserted of everything but stink and dumpsters. He gently licked her cheek to register the perfection of the beauty spots. He normally stripped a girl if time permitted, but the alley’s exposure didn’t encourage lingering.
This was what he loved: his racing heart, the singing in his brain. But his vocation as an artist of obliteration peaked in the momentum of the tire iron stilled by contact. The iron caved Gillian’s right cheek and broke her nose. She choked and struggled, but Con soon put an end to her misery.
Taking a life was a rush better than sex. And the best trophy? He would always be the last person Gillian saw. She would always belong to him. He unfastened her cross and chain. He should have done it right off and had to dry the gold on the hem of his poncho.
He’d rather have left her in full view, but he wasn’t crazy. The dumpster offered a chance she’d never be found.
He snatched the canvas backpack from her car and butt-shut her door.
He cleaned up in a gas-station restroom, and, on his way to the Lobster Claw, braked by several street bins in turn to toss Gillian’s purse, the poncho, and the tire iron.
Back at the Lobster Claw, Steve’s help fixed Con a couple of lobster rolls and Steve offered him a cheap studio apartment above the bar. Sweet deal.
Con ate in the bar, serving customers between bites and schmoozing with the parade of customers, mainly stockbroker-types going by the chatter about NASDAQ, DOW, S&P, and buy-backs. The sort of money-magic Con intended to conjure—was already conjuring. Collecting mementos was his passion, but collecting money was his life’s work. Money made the man. Steve had given him an in with Boston’s financial elite, and Con wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip by. He’d collected a dozen business cards before his shift ended.
He trudged up the kitchen stairs and slung his gear onto his single bed. Shivering, he unbuckled the backpack he’d taken from Gillian’s car and emptied out the contents. From Melanie Bettencourt—Con’s first—a plastic bag containing a blood-stained dress he’d rolled tightly around a black-lace bra and a single silver earring. From the high-school girl Abigail, a smaller bag containing a jade pin and torn thong panties flecked with baby-blue fluff. He’d almost kept her mohair sweater but figured it would smell bad.
He repacked his haul then tucked in Gillian’s jewelry and his ex-fiancé’s jeans and tee along with the sapphire engagement ring that’d set him back $15,000.
He blew on his hands. Why was the blasted a/c set so low?
He went in search of the thermostat. Across the hall, he found the door to Gillian’s studio unlocked. No thermostat inside, but her clothes and toiletries in the suitcase told him she’d been ready to split at a moment’s notice. Evidently, she didn’t think she had a moment. And maybe she’d been right to leave when she did, only then she’d stopped at Starbucks.
He didn’t touch her stuff. Odds were, cops would soon be swarming over it. But he filled her electric kettle. He needed to unwind. After a blow-out argument with his ex, Didi, which he didn’t regret, he’d set off from Cape Cod before dawn. But the drive north in stop-and-go traffic and negotiating Boston’s old streets had done a number on him.
He longed to rest his head on Gillian’s pillow where her cheek used to lie, but it was memory-foam, cold and unyielding when he poked it with his elbow.
The steaming kettle roused him into making tea. Back in his own apartment, he dropped the tea bag in his own trash can, and while the tea cooled he leaned on the hallway banister waiting for Steve and the one-man kitchen crew to finish cleaning and take off.
Aside from the ding in his car door—which Con would get fixed out of town—it’d been a five-star day. Since he could remember he couldn’t care less about college or military service or even foreign travel. He’d traveled, but only to Boston and across the state for cranberry deliveries. The delivery gigs stopped after the collision. He’d been on his cell with Didi true enough, but the dead guy—a cop—had been buzzed out of his gourd.
At home, his talent covered weather prediction and timely cranberry planting and harvest, but that didn’t mean his brain belonged in the bogs. Nothing easier than growing and harvesting money. His Peter-Sutcliffe identity alone had netted him over fifty thou.
From the foot of the stairs, Steve peered up and called, “We’re off. I’ve cleared the register and locked up the good booze, so you can’t rob me blind. Alarm will go on in a tick, so stay put.”
Con said, “No worries. I’m beat.”
“Tell Gillian to call if she comes back.”
The kitchen door slammed, and the alarm pinged. Con fetched the backpack from his bed and on the landing tugged down the attic steps. He mounted double-quick to stop from being frozen solid.
If the rest of the building was cold, the attic was glacial. Like the attic at home, it had to be haunted. The Fearing ghost was a crazy biddy who was said to have hanged herself up there. The tavern was old, maybe even colonial—chock full of death. But who couldn’t put up with a few harmless ghosts?
He risked turning on the dangling bulb set square over a battered trunk amid broken barstools, beer trays, and illumination bric-a-brac. Nothing behind him but wavering shadows; and nothing in the trunk but disturbed dust.
He restored the backpack to the trunk where he’d hidden it the day of his sister’s wedding, two days after he’d collected from Melanie Bettencourt. He’d returned a couple of times, of course—the last time to pack away his Abigail trophies. Had their ghosts lingered with the old ones?
Gillian didn’t show on Monday and Steve shoved the Boston Globe headline under Con’s face: “Woman Found Battered to Death in Local Dumpster.”
Steve set his elbows on the paper and said glumly, “That’s the third.”
“Murder connected to this place. Two years ago, it was Melanie Bettencourt, an artist type; then three months back, a high school kid, Abigail Newcombe. Both were half shot when they left here. This Jane Doe could be Gillian, except she isn’t the type to get herself killed by the local maniac.”
“It’s probably not her,” Con said as he buffed the bar’s extensive show of brass. He frowned. “Cops have any idea who’s behind it?”
“Cops looked at my brother Link for Melanie’s murder, but no conclusive evidence. I better call them. If it’s Gillian, I could identify her.”
Don’t bother pal. It’ll be down DNA and old bone fractures.
Half an hour later, Con grinned to see two cops stomp through the bar door because one of them was his sister Allana who recently made detective in some specialized squad. She wore the same bulky, pocket-heavy uniform as her whey-faced, buzz-cut partner, and introduced him as Detective Bryce. He was an ice-box, and Con kept his distance.
On cue, he reported Gillian’s exit in her red Miata.
“There was no backpack or ID with the body,” Allana said.
“The cross she wore?” Steve asked.
“No crucifix on her,” Bryce said in a voice like grating gears.
Laryngitis, Con figured.
“If the necklace turns up, Mr. Norris,” Allana said, “you think you could identify it?”
“Not in a million years.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Not much. She’d only worked here four or five months. I guessed she was a P.I. undercover.”
“You’re right,” Allana said. “She never showed for an appointment she made with Detective Bryce Saturday.”
Was that meeting the reason Gillian hoofed it? No; it didn’t make sense she’d be too rushed to ring up a sale then stop for coffee.
While Bryce talked Steve out of a trip to the morgue, Con escorted Allana upstairs.
She said, “You ran away from home at last baby brother?”
“I guess I did.”
“How’re the folks taking it?”
“They’ll get used to it. You ever plan to talk to them again?”
“They won’t accept who I am, so why stress?” she said.
She’d married a woman, and only Con on the Fearing side came to the reception at the Lobster Claw, a fancy spread with free-flowing champagne—the other bride being a Brahmin lawyer type. He’d played hide and seek for hours with his sister’s cute new step-kids. That was how he’d discovered the attic.
He leaned on the door jamb while Allana sifted through Gillian’s suitcase. He wished Gillian had been wearing that filmy blouse when she died; he’d have taken the time to remove that for a keepsake.
“Looks like she took off sooner than she intended,” Allana said, “but if our Jane Doe’s Gillian Marsh, that’s three women associated with this bar beaten to death and dumped nearby.”
“Rape?” he asked.
“Nope, but the perp’s taking trophies. You didn’t touch anything in here, did you?”
He was glad he hadn’t laid down for a spell and left trace behind. He shook his head and retreated to the bar.
Fifteen minutes later Allana tramped downstairs in her creaky boots and kissed him on the cheek. “You ever need a handout, let me know.”
“I’m good,” he said. “Really good.”
Allana’s looks were so-so, but she had truly beautiful ears unmarred by piercings. Not often a woman’s ears got special mention. Next time he got the urge, he’d be on the lookout for attractive ears.
After Con’s dinner break, a spiky-haired blonde in her early thirties parked herself on a stool and demanded a dry martini. Despite the cold wrapped around her, Con broke out in a sweat and almost dropped the gin bottle. No, she was the sister he’d watched on TV.
The woman had asked for help in identifying the murderer of her sister, Melanie Bettencourt. Hunched in her silvery puffer with the collar up, she saved the stool beside her when a heavily inked guy hit on her. Con admired the dragons on his forearms. Maybe he’d get a tattooed girl next time. A tattooed girl with perfect ears.
When Steve passed by, the woman raised up on her stool to grab his sleeve. “How did Gillian end up on my gurney this morning?”
“You sure it’s Gillian, Marissa?” he said.
Marissa Bettencourt—Con recalled she was a doctor—sank to her seat. “Subject to x-ray confirmation.”
“What the dick’s happening around here?” Steve asked.
“Right now, it’s all about Gillian,” Marissa said.
Steve pulled a sweatshirt from a peg behind him. “The eye-witness says Link came in and she ran.”
Con wiped the bar and set down the napkin and martini. Marissa swung her gaze from her drink to Steve shrouded in his sweatshirt.
“You think your scam artist brother’s a serial killer?” Her brow pleated as she chewed an olive from its toothpick.
His mouth free of fabric, Steve said, “I’ll kill him if he is.”
Evidently, Dr. Bettencourt was the Medical Examiner, and all evening, despite the chill she threw off, Con kept the charm faucet turned on full. Between tending other customers and keeping her glass filled, he elicited snippets on Gillian’s autopsy. Nothing to worry him, unless Marissa was holding back on trace evidence. Why had he touched his lips to Gillian’s cheek?
No, the DNA’s not recoverable. Not a chance.
No one had questioned him about Melanie or Abigail, and he’d left trace on their faces, too. Besides, his DNA wasn’t in any criminal database.
“Must be weird autopsying someone you know,” he said.
“You can’t even guess.”
Con leaned close and got a whiff of bleach. “What’s your connection to her?”
Marissa said, “She’s my P.P.I.”
Vanity plate: PPI 007. “What’s that?”
“Paranormal private investigator.”
Was she kidding him? “What was she investigating on the paranormal spectrum?”
“The dumpster killings. There’s irony for you.”
He played the stupid card. “You’re saying she figured the killer was a werewolf?”
She dragged her fingernails over the glossy bar. “No, she communes with ghosts. My sister was the first victim, and Gillian believed her ghost was locked in Steve’s tavern. She was right. Gillian found a kid’s backpack stuffed with bloody trophies, and Melanie was able to make her way to me. That was last Friday.” She moaned. “I was supposed to meet Gillian to identify Melanie’s stuff, but I had to work.”
“That pile up on I-93?” Con asked.
She gouged a sliver of wood from under the varnish and rolled it between her fingers. “It was bad.”
“The cops searched Gillian’s place,” Con said. “They didn’t take any backpack.”
A customer barked out a long order.
When Con got back, Marissa was snoozing.
Steve said. “She’s had a tough day. Take her home, Con. I’ll tab her booze.”
Con jostled her shoulder and said, “I’ll drive you, okay?”
She yawned herself awake, and Con picked up the Lexus remote she’d set on the bar as if she’d planned to hook a designated driver.
Steve pitched Con a keyring. “You know the bar’s alarm code, but you’ll need the tavern keys if you’re back before I open up.”
It didn’t surprise Con that Steve trusted him; everyone did. But he didn’t like the implication that he would take advantage of a drunk, not even Didi who binged every chance she got and deserved only grief after that outburst Friday night—like she hadn’t begged a million times for nice things. But no, sapphires didn’t satisfy her. She wanted another ring, platinum with a diamond solitaire.
Marissa lived in a high-rise condominium, the foyer chic with art and potted plants.
The elderly doorman shivered until his jowls shook. “The doc’s always upset after a murder autopsy. I’ll take her up.”
Marissa clung to Con’s arm and slurred, “Pretty boy’s coming with us.”
Con chuckled amiably. “Don’t worry, I bartend at the Lobster Claw. Steve Norris told me to get the good doctor home. I can handle her; she must weigh all of 99 pounds.”
“Anyone else would call a cab.”
“Not when women turn up dead in dumpsters.”
The doorman whispered, “That’s how her sister ended up.”
“That’s how I heard it,” Con said.
The fourth-floor condo was frigid, white-walled, and sparsely furnished as if Marissa hadn’t found the thermostat, or never quite decided to stay, or hosted ghosts by the legion. He would have explored, but she’d sobered up by the time he fixed coffee.
Had she played drunk because she fancied a boy toy? She was sharp rather than hot. Not like Melanie. Nor Gillian for that matter.
Or had Marissa set a trap because she suspected him in Gillian’s—or Melanie’s—death?
Marissa nursed her mug and perched on the edge of her loveseat. “Sit,” she said.
He straddled a footstool and looked up to her face over the collar of her puffer. He avoided her eyes as she laid on question after question about Gillian’s demeanor before she fled the bar, but he had nothing illuminating to say. He didn’t know why Gillian took off and wished he did. Unless it was his Peter Sutcliffe credit card? A PI—even a PPI—would’ve boned up on serial killers.
Marissa sipped her coffee and pulled a face—Con made it strong. “Was there someone outside the tavern who caught her eye?” she asked.
“Doubt it. The windows are textured glass. Only light gets through. It paints the floor with rainbows. It’s neat.” He swallowed a draft of luxuriously hot coffee and studied a blow-up portrait interrupting the blankness of a wall. It showed two identical blondes in caps and gowns. “You’re a twin,” he said.
Marissa said, “Yeah, that’s the day we graduated high school. I was always into medicine, but Melanie was forever trying to find herself in all the wrong places. Technically, she was pursuing her fine-arts master’s, but she hooked up with Link Norris.”
“What’s wrong with him, apart from the obvious?”
“He passes off fakes as famous works of art; Melanie was a meticulous painter but short on imagination, so it was the perfect job for her. Gillian was supposed to expose the killer.”
Beyond Marissa’s shoulder, Con caught a glimpse of something wavering, not quite in focus. Before his eyes, it bloomed into Melanie, or rather her ghost. He’d never laid eyes on a ghost before, but it seemed ghosts came back in their prime except for the washed-out color. Instead of a caved-in face and a wash of blood and gore, Melanie looked like she had two years earlier, still wearing her single earring and the sexy party dress. The only warmth in his body lay in his hands wrapped around the mug.
“That’s her beside you?” he asked.
“Yeah; she was stuck in that attic trunk a long time and has to get used to visibility. She came with me to the bar earlier but she still fades in and out.”
Con gulped his coffee and took courage from the heat surging down his esophagus. “She told you who did it?”
“Apparently murder-victim ghosts exist in a fugue state. She was wasted, and the last thing she recalls is a kid stopped her in the street. After that, nothing.”
“She say what he looked like?” Con asked.
“Cute, medium height,” Marissa said. “Strong, like he worked out.”
“He smelled like Thanksgiving,” Melanie said, her ghost voice low and tickly inside Con’s ears.
Marissa said, “Gillian thought that was a clue. But what does Thanksgiving smell like? Roast turkey, pumpkin pie?”
Time for a U-turn. “You still think Link killed Melanie?” he asked.
“Maybe, if he wanted to cover up his fraud or just went stonecold psycho on her, but the police couldn’t pin it on him.”
“What about Abigail?”
Marissa blew on her coffee. “Abigail’s here somewhere, but she’s shy. The night she was killed, Gillian flagged her with the rest of the high-school kids. No connection to Link.”
“What does she say about her killer?”
“She remembers the leather smell of a new car.”
Weird how ghosts retained smells but not events. Con recalled how he’d let his Peter persona buy Abigail a lager and practically drooled while she danced in her baby blue sweater and skinny jeans—jeans too tight to strip off her when it came down to it—so he’d had to tear through her thong.
He’d followed her outdoors after Gillian pulled the plug, and it hadn’t been hard to lure her away from her crowd and into his hot-off-the-lot BMW.
Melanie lay her cheek on Marissa’s shoulder, and Marissa said, “I’d hoped that when Melanie and Abigail saw the backpack trophies they’d remember who killed them.”
And maybe they would if they smelled Con on those trophies. He shuddered.
“They sure like the deep freeze,” Marissa said sympathetically. “When Gillian stops by, I expect they’ll be able to go on their way.”
Con had to count down his impatience before he trusted himself to speak. “You’re saying our Jane Doe isn’t Gillian?”
“Well, yes, but she’ll be back. You can count on it.
What if some ghosts had total recall?
He sat frozen until Marissa stroked her throat and pursed her lips. “She’ll show up eventually, but time to turn in. Don’t you think?”
He’d already brushed those identical lips with his own, and he wasn’t in the mood. He didn’t get in mood often—another one of Didi’s big-mouth complaints.
He sipped coffee that slid down his throat colder than the blood in his veins. “I better split.”
Con surveyed the wreckage in Gillian’s studio. His place was almost as bad, his best suit and shirts balled up in corners, but he needed to get Allana back. He pulled his jazzy alpaca sweater down over his head and texted her.
She phoned him from the back door within the half-hour, and he let her in with Bryce. They ushered in a layer of permafrost. Could it get any colder?
Con led them upstairs.
At his apartment, Allana asked, “You think Steve Norris did this?”
“Whoever did it got in before closing or knows the alarm code.”
Con perched on the top step while Allana and Bryce inspected the damage, Con’s studio first. Afterwards, they barred Gillian’s door with crime scene tape.
When Bryce clomped downstairs, Allana beckoned Con into his place and said, “No real damage in here; let’s talk.”
She spread-eagled herself on his bed and sighed. “You were always scared of the Fearing ghost that tosses stuff around the attic, right?”
He picked up his suit jacket to rehang. “I was freaked by the chill in the hallway beneath but I went into the attic to check out the wreckage a couple of times. Nothing scary to see.”
“She didn’t kill herself, you know. She was beaten to death by our great-granddad.”
He shrugged. Looked like it was true the bad apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“You ever see her?”
“A few times,” Allana said, “hence my job. She sure made a mess when her dander was up.”
“You’re telling me ghosts could have done this?” He swept his arm around the room.
“Some of them don’t give up on life that easily.”
Con had only aimed to set up Steve, but the mad ghost theory was almost as good.
“And you,” Alanna said, reaching for a sheaf of papers on the nightstand, “make your own messes, right?”
She sat up and waved Con’s resumés at him. She’d rooted through his briefcase.
“My, my,” she said, “two MBAs and six years of investment experience.”
“I can do the job; that’s the window-dressing.”
“You’re all about window-dressing, right Con?”
Alone in the bar and downing a brandy to warm his guts, Con chewed over Allana’s tone. It’d shocked him into forgetting to ask if Bryce had turned up any murder trophies on the premises, the whole point of calling Allana. When he picked up the shrilling bar phone expecting an apology from her, Marissa told him to come back to her place. Told him.
It was either a showdown or a booty call. If the latter, he’d let her down easy.
He zipped a quilted jacket over his sweater.
In Marissa’s condo, Con stared at the newcomer. Same pallor, same six beauty spots, same dark fingernails and shimmering cross. Gillian looked only a shade paler than she had before she kissed his tire iron. The temperature had to be sub-zero, and follicles erected every hair on his body.
“Now we’re all here Gillian, tell us what you remember,” Marissa said.
Her voice husky, ultra-sexy, Gillian said, “A BMW bumped me. I got out of the car … Then nothing. Did Link follow me?”
Con’s follicles relaxed. She didn’t remember the attack. He said, “Link left the bar pretty quick.”
“Did Steve stay in all day?” she asked.
Con said, “I guess he had to keep an eye on me.”
Gillian’s sigh came out an icy gust. “The trophy backpack—I was supposed to hand it to Detective Bryce but I needed coffee. He freezes ice cubes at fifty paces.”
“That pin was my grandmother’s,” a thin voice said.
Abigail’s voice. But no one responded. Con wasn’t happy. This was looking more and more like a setup.
“Why’d you run off, Gillian?” he asked.
Gillian frowned. “I flashed on the Yorkshire Ripper. Somehow, Peter Sutcliffe and our maniac collided in my brain. A delayed reaction to the lager I pulled maybe. There was something important I needed to tell Detective Bryce, but I can’t remember what.”
“Jeez,” Melanie said. “Someone told me about that British killer.”
“A guy called Peter Sutcliffe bought me a drink the night I died,” Abigail said.
Gillian said, “Sutcliffe’s dead as far as I know. Steve’s the obvious candidate for our murders. The trophies were in his attic. Plus, he used the spare apartment for dating. There could be more bodies, more trophies.”
Con forced himself to join in. “Was it you who tossed our studio apartments earlier, Gillian?”
Gillian licked her bloodless lips with the tip of a pale tongue. “The studios were tossed? Not by me. But anyone can get upstairs. When you think about it, anyone could have planted that backpack in the attic.”
Total dipshit move, Con.
Back at the tavern, Con hot-showered and considered the next play. Dressed in almost every item of clothing he owned—creased though it was—he looked like a slob but felt warm and drowsy when he texted Allana to come check out what he’d found in the bar. It’d stabbed him in the heart to sacrifice it, but it had to be done.
He waited by the kitchen door to let her in. Dawn was breaking, and all he wanted was sleep.
When he opened the door, she brushed by him.
Bryce had to be off duty or out sick, but she parked her butt on a barstool and set her badge in plain view. It read Boston PD Paranormal Squad. Like he’d figured.
“You’ve something you need to get off your chest?” she asked, eyes locked onto his.
This wasn’t good. He slid the cross and chain across the bar. “Must be Gillian’s,” he said. “It was poking out of a loose floorboard; I guess Steve hid it there.” He pointed to the raised flooring.
“You handled it?”
“I didn’t think about it.”
She bagged the evidence.
“I did good, right?” he asked.
She sat next to him again and lit a cigarette—against house rules—but Steve would soon have bigger problems to deal with.
She blew the smoke in Con’s face and said, “You ever hear about a scam they call synthetic-identity fraud?”
He grinned. “What’s that, android impersonation?”
“Don’t get smart with me, Con.”
“So, what is it?”
“A guy or gal invents a name and social security number, maybe dozens of them, and applies for a loan sure to be denied. The nixed loan establishes a credit record that permits the synthetic—or fake—identities to collect credit cards and loans down the line.”
“Why tell me?”
“Your resumé set me thinking. I’d say you’re playing the synthetic-identity-fraud game.”
“You told me I’m only window-dressing,” he complained, wishing he’d had the foresight to toss his credit cards along with the purse, tire iron, and poncho.
“Heard you paid cash for that BMW,” she said.
To know the history of his ride, Allana must have called home. “You said you were through with our family.”
“Mom called to tell me Didi was beaten and dumped. Just like Melanie, Abigail, and Gillian.” She flicked ash over Con’s 500-buck loafers. “Weird coincidence, don’t you think?”
She watched him. Like he was actually going to react.
“Anyway,” she said, “that’s why I was headed here when you texted.”
Con yawned. He was practically asleep.
He shook himself alert. “How’d they know it’s Didi?”
“The tattoo on her pelvis.”
Con said, “Lots of girls like tattoos.”
“Not with your name.”
“What’re you getting at?”
“She broke off the engagement because of the fraud, right? Or was it something to do with the Peter-Sutcliffe lifestyle?”
He slipped into the memory of Didi’s ultra-long eyelashes, the tickle of mink on his cheek whenever she kissed him. He hid his face behind his hands. Thank the Lord the temperature had normalized.
But he was woozy and couldn’t think straight. His eyes watered from the cigarette smoke, and his sob didn’t even sound authentic to his own ears. “I loved Didi. I’m shattered. Why would you think I’d kill her?”
Allana said, “I’d say you could have done better in the love department.”
He rested his cheek on the bar. Bringing back the trophies had been a colossal mistake. He couldn’t bluff that backpack out of existence. All Allana needed was a search warrant to find his collection. Even if Steve took the heat for the three local murders, Didi was on Con, and he’d lose his trophies either way.
“Am I under arrest?” he mumbled.
“You are.” She monotoned the warning while she fished for her cuffs.
Con didn’t raise his head, only watched early morning’s fake rainbows playing over the ghosts of Gillian, Didi, Abigail, Melanie, and Bryce.
Not the cleaned-up versions but bloody and broken like he’d left them.
Why was Bryce there? Was he the drunk cop whose brains had mingled with the crushed cranberries after the collision? Con never thought of keeping a memento of the crash—his first killing. He stretched out a hand toward Bryce’s badge, but all he got was a rainbow bleeding over his hand.
His arm came to rest on his lap and the world came to a dead stop.
“Hypothermia,” Bryce said in that annoyingly grating voice.
Con had drifted into a new world—no shackles, no memories, and no regrets. But he smelled blood. What did those ghosts plan to do with him?