Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tuesday's Featured Sleep Over Novel (11/12/13)

The Boyfriend

(Jack Till #2)


Jack Till, who has retired from the LAPD after a respected career as a homicide detective, now works as a private investigator, comfortable chasing down routine cases while visiting his 24-year-old daughter, Holly, who has Down Syndrome. But when the parents of a recently murdered young girl, about Holly's age, ask for his help when the police come up empty, Till reluctantly takes the case.

It was discovered after her death that the victim had been working as a high-class prostitute, and the police are content to assume she was killed by a client, common in such a dangerous line of work. Yet as Till digs deeper, he realizes that the victim is just one of several young female escorts killed in different cities in the exact same way -- all had strawberry blonde hair, and all were shot with a 9mm handgun in the sanctity of their apartments.

Till must find his way around the tawdry and secretive online escort business, and decode ads placed by young women who all use false names, sometimes advertise using other women's pictures, and move from city to city every few months. Yet when Till is finally able to catch up with the killer, he finds that the man he's after is far more dangerous and volatile than he ever could have imagined. As the body count rises, Till must risk his life to find this seductive and ruthless killer whose murderous spree masks a far deadlier agenda.

Since Catherine had met Joey two months ago, it seemed she’d never had enough time for the amount of living she wanted to do. But today she wasted nearly twenty minutes standing on the sidewalk outside Ivy at the Shore waiting to have lunch with two friends from college, Caitlyn Raines and Megan Stiles. They arrived together in Caitlyn’s Mercedes, a car Catherine thought of as not a real Mercedes. It was the type that was no bigger than a Honda, but it had a three-pointed Mercedes symbol in about five inches of chrome.

Seeing the other two come together in that car started things wrong for Catherine. She’d had to drive alone from the Valley. There was the hint that they had been together for some time and shared information, and that they would be able to talk about her on the way home afterward, or even go on to continue their afternoon without her.

They were the sort of friends who had not been friends out of affection or admiration of one another’s good qualities. They had all been attractive—two of them hot, in the argot of that time and place.  Caitlyn had been the Scots-Irish girl with coal black hair and blue eyes, big breasts, and an undiscriminating smile, and Megan was the tall natural blond, so they had both been sought-after, but Catherine had not. She had been born with strawberry blond hair, a face that was pleasant but not striking, and eyes that were hazel, not blue. They had all done the work in high school that was necessary to score well on the standard tests and get them certified as college material.

At UCLA they had all pursued impressive-sounding academic programs that were genuinely demanding and edifying but were not designed to lead to any sort of future compensation. They had met in a freshman dormitory and been selected together for pledging at Sigma Tau Tau, a sorority filled with young women of similar promise and limitations. Their friendship had been dictated by the situation, the role they were doomed to play in that place. They had competed against each other for three more years.

The competition was unavoidable. If you were in a university program you had a grade point average, whether you wanted one or not.  And to refuse to divulge yours was an admission that it was lower than someone else’s. And when you went to parties or university social events, it was always painfully obvious who was of great value to the opposite sex, and who was the second choice, and who was the one being settled for by the boy who was shortest or a little bit chubby.  These were primal competitions of the crudest sort. The males were choosing on the basis of the females’ pure mating potential. Although the males had no idea that was what they were doing, they chose in absolute sincerity. In general, by the time males made any sort of approach they had already been drinking. Nuance was lost. They looked, and they wanted. Or they didn’t want.

Catherine’s few victories in this competition were due to a particular, odd circumstance. Megan Stiles, the tall blond, was actually over six feet tall in bare feet, a woman whom some short—or even average—men wouldn’t approach. She was a golden prize, but it took a man with a great deal of confidence to believe he could interest her.  So there were evenings when she stood around a lot, surreptitiously looking over the heads of not quite suitors and hoping for somebody of the right height to come into view.

Caitlyn too had her solitary evenings. She had a loud voice, and a louder laugh, so on a couple of occasions a man who had immediately drifted toward the black hair and the white skin and the seductive shape seemed to drift away, his ears battered by the voice.

Usually Catherine had won the GPA and academic achievement events in the competition, but lost the social and romantic events.  Having Megan and Caitlyn show up together reminded her of all of those disappointments, and she wished she had said she was too busy for lunch today.

“Hi,” she said as they let the valet take the miniature Mercedes and Caitlyn slipped the car check into her wallet.

“Been here long?” That was worse than being late. It showed Caitlyn knew she was late, but didn’t plan to apologize.

“Not too long,” Catherine said. “I got here right at twelve-thirty.”  Twelve-thirty was the time of their reservation, and the time they’d all promised to be here.

Caitlyn and Megan leaned in and delivered air kisses. Catherine hoped that her perfume and hair smelled as fresh and floral as theirs, but she couldn’t tell what they thought.

“My God, Cathy,” said Megan. “It’s been how long? At least two years.”

“At least,” Catherine said. She had arrived at UCLA seven years ago having never been allowed to be anything but a Cathy. She had made a conscious decision to be a Catherine. The refusal of her friends, her supposed sisters, ever to respect or even acknowledge the change had always infuriated her. She’d been sure it was a competitor’s ploy to rattle an opponent. If there was a group photograph, she would always be identified as “Cathy” Hamilton. If there was a roster or listing of names, one of her friends would alter it to make her “Cathy.” At one time, if they had greeted her this way, she would have said, “Actually, it’s Catherine.” But she found she had outgrown that, as she had outgrown them. “Shall we go in?”

She held the door and let the others inside. For an instant she hoped they would see some hint of irritation on the face of the maître d’—some disapproval for being half an hour late. But no, as long as they looked the way they did, they would be permitted to behave the way they wished. He was delighted to lead them to an excellent table where they had a view across the street at the ocean, and his other customers had a view of them.

They sat in the light, airy atmosphere of the restaurant and ordered the things that the ocean suggested to the appetite—crab cakes and sole and swordfish, which they ate the way they had eaten in college, sparingly, only tasting, with no bread and salads with no dressing.  They drank iced tea unsweetened. The bit of caffeine-helped burn off weight, and heavily iced drinks made the body use calories to warm them to body temperature.

Caitlyn said, “Well, here we all are, divorced and unattached almost four years after graduation.”

Catherine had never been married, but she felt no reason to correct her.
“I thought surely you two would be the first ones in our class to have it all and do it all.”

Megan gave Caitlyn a sly look. “I thought you’d be the first one to do it all, anyway.”

Caitlyn gave a little slap to Megan’s forearm. “I hope you meant that in some nice way.”

Catherine said, “How is the movie job?” Caitlyn said, “That was two jobs ago. The whole world got laid off two years ago, not just me. I decided that if studio work was that precarious, it wasn’t for me. I was taking a low salary and working insane hours, thinking I would pay my dues and then move upward.  And it wasn’t fun, either. It was always, ‘Get this one on the phone,’ or ‘Messenger this to that one.’”

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m thinking about going to get an MBA.”

“Ah,” said Catherine, nodding as though she agreed that was a sensible thing to do, although she didn’t. “How about you, Meg?”

“I’m getting ready to open a business.”

“What kind?

“Fashion. I found an opportunity to get some things made cheaply downtown, so I’m doing my own line. I should be ready in the spring.”

More concrete plans that weren’t concrete. Their plans were always specific instead of true, because that was how they had learned to lie.  She knew that if she pressed either of them for details they would invent as many as she could listen to.

Megan made it Catherine’s turn. “And how about you? Are you still in school?”

“No. I’ve been working as assistant to a lawyer whose clients are all businesses. It’s pretty dull. No interesting details of divorces, no suspenseful criminal cases. It’s all just agreements between companies— four copies, signed and countersigned, then filed in the client file.”

“Oh my God, Cathy. You poor thing. How did that happen to you?”

“I had been looking for over a year, and didn’t find anything. I needed a job. There was no other choice. I had to pay my rent and live while I looked for something else, then tried to keep up with my expenses and put a little away.” She laughed. “It’s not like I went to prison. I’m  getting through hard times. When it’s over I’ll look some more.”

They looked at each other. “Good luck.”

Catherine could see that they thought she was making a mistake. To  be an unemployed fashion consultant or unemployed business owner  was better than being a secretary. Better to be something pretentious  and never get a chance to work than to let go of the illusion—the  pose—that they were better than other people. She could see them  moving her down the hierarchy in their minds.

Caitlyn and Megan talked through the rest of the lunch about “losing”  their husbands. She knew that was a lie, like most of what they  said. Women didn’t “lose” husbands, they threw them away. Only  later did they realize what they’d done, and some of them regretted it.  What they regretted was losing the person who had supported them,  but that wasn’t what they felt. They felt the loss of a world where they  could behave in any way they liked, and there would never be any  consequences.

Caitlyn prided herself on being a “spoiled bitch,” and had once  owned a T-shirt that said so in sequins. Catherine wondered what  Caitlyn would think of a man who had a T-shirt that said, “Overbearing  Ass.” It became clear that they’d both lost romantic interest  in their husbands after a year or so, and, as Caitlyn put it, “stopped  acting like a little concubine or something.” So the husbands had  moved on, and found somebody else. Caitlyn had made up a story  about how men were selfish and went after every new woman.

Catherine didn’t know if that story ever happened or not. Probably  it did. But it had never happened to anyone she knew. The woman  had simply turned off the affection like a water faucet. Then she  devoted herself to the house, though she didn’t clean or maintain it;  the children, though she saw them for only a couple of hours a day; her friends; and her activities. Sometimes there was an enterprise of  some kind, an almost-business the women conducted, but usually  not. They didn’t give much thought anymore to their husbands, so  their husbands were “lost.”

Catherine didn’t worry about Megan or Caitlyn. They would find  more husbands. They had already learned that it was possible to make  a lot of money in a divorce, and the quicker the divorce came after  the wedding, the easier the money. If the dissolution of the marriage  came really fast, there was almost no emotional investment lost, and  their assets—smooth skin, thick hair, a good figure—sustained little  depreciation.

Catherine took the check. There were a couple of feeble murmurs  that started as a mild protest, then shaded into unenthusiastic thanks.  She had done it because she had heard things in the conversation that  she’d recognized as signs of money trouble. She too had once used  Caitlyn’s “I’m too busy to take a job.” It meant she couldn’t find one.  And Megan’s “My ex-husband is late with the check” meant more  than late. Catherine didn’t care anymore, and so she didn’t begrudge  them their lies.

In her profession, she had heard a lot of excuses like those. There  were very few girls who hadn’t gotten started because whoever was  supposed to be supporting them had stopped.

She went outside with Megan and Caitlyn and exchanged the  usual hugs and near-miss kisses that they had traded since freshman  year. She was acutely aware of the way the three of them looked on  the sunlit sidewalk in front of Ivy at the Shore. As they were at this  moment, three young women who were sophisticated, graceful, and  just reaching the late peak of their beauty, they would have made a  wonderful painting—one head light blond, one strawberry red, one  coal black. As the valet parking attendant brought the little runt of a Mercedes  and the other two got in, Catherine waved. As she watched  them drive off along Ocean Boulevard she thought how nobody in  LA called the place where the land met the ocean “the shore.” And  then, without consciously turning her thoughts in their direction,  she found herself deciding she would never see those two women  again. Everything she had ever wanted to know about them she had  known before graduation. Now, four years later, they were the same,  as they would be forever.

There was no reason to see them again. She handed the valet her  parking receipt, and he ran off to get her car. He came back with the  sleek black Mercedes S600. She had felt glad she had arrived first so they  hadn’t seen the car. Because they were Megan and Caitlyn they would  always assume she’d arrived on time because she drove an old Nissan  or something, and not a car that cost five times what Caitlyn’s had. She  heard a set of police sirens just as the car stopped and the valet got out  and opened the door. She listened, and decided they were moving away.

She drove along Ocean Boulevard toward the end of Montana so she  could get back into west LA. It had been a long lunch. It would be after  three by the time she got home, and four by the time she was ready to  work. She took out her phone and listened to her messages on the speaker.

The first one was an “I can’t help thinking about you all the time”  call. She recognized the voice. Billy? Bobby? It was that kind of name.  He was sweet, and kind of handsome. She would return his call when  she got home. There was an “I saw your pictures on Backpage.com,  and I thought I’d call and see if we could work out a deal.” No, she  thought. If you saw the ad, you saw the prices. Nothing to work out.  “Hi. It’s me, George. I’ll call later to make an appointment.” George  was in his sixties, older than her father. But he was exactly the kind  of regular that made girls rich. He was a widower who missed his wife and loved women. The old ones were gentle and patient, much  easier on the body, and George gave her big tips.

She drove into the short driveway and waited while the heavy iron  gate rose to admit her, then drove in, pressed the button to close it,  and swung into her parking space. Catherine stepped to the inner  door and went up into the first-floor lobby. There was a thick carpet,  so her high heels made no noise. She stepped into the elevator, and  went up to her apartment.

When she walked in, she could sense he was in the bedroom, even  though he was very quiet. It sounded as though when he’d heard the  door open he had stopped to listen to be sure it was Catherine. “Hi,”  she said, and stepped into the bedroom.

He smiled. “Hi.” He had a great smile—boyish and unguarded,  and yet there was a sly, knowing look in the big, beautiful eyes that  revealed he was a really bad boy. It made her want to jump on him.  She stepped toward him and saw he had a gym bag half open on the  other side of the bed, and he had folded clothes inside.

“Are you leaving?”

“I think I’ve taken enough advantage of your hospitality. Thanks,  Catherine. Thanks so much for putting up with me.”

“And for putting out with you?” She shrugged.

His smile renewed itself. “That too. No, that especially.”

She stepped closer. “I forgot to tell you the meter was running.  You owe me seventy thousand roses. Just kidding.”

“If I had that much, I’d be happy to give it to you,” he said. He sat  on the bed and put something else into the gym bag.

“Did you find an apartment?”

“I’d never move out for that,” he said. “I finally agreed to take that  job in Phoenix. I’ll be back from time to time on weekends, and the  job will end in the late spring.” “Okay,” she said. “Sounds fine.”

“It gets a little hot for construction around then, and the jobs taper  off.” He reached down, picked up a nearly empty two-quart plastic  bottle of Pepsi, took a drink, and offered it to her.

As she looked at him it was unbearable to imagine the Phoenix sun  shining down on a construction site, ruining his unlined, beautiful  complexion. She accepted the bottle, took a drink, and handed it  back. “Ugh. That’s real. I thought it was diet.”

He took another deep draft, emptying it; set it down; then went  back to packing his gym bag.

She walked into the bathroom and took off her new skirt, then  the expensive silk blouse. “Will you send me your phone number  and address?”

“Of course. But you’ve already got my cell number and e-mail.  Those will always be good.”

While Catherine was in the bathroom he took a roll of duct tape  out of his bag and tore off a long strip. He reached in again and pulled  out a Beretta M92 pistol. He pushed the muzzle of the pistol into  the neck of the big plastic bottle and taped it there. He said, loudly  enough for her to hear, “I also plan to see you whenever I can get  back for a visit.”

“Make sure you call a couple of days ahead. I’d hate to have you  come and be too busy to see you.” She regretted having said that. It  had just been a way to sting him for leaving her.

“I will.”

She came out of the bathroom barefoot, dressed in a bra and a  thong, passed by him, and stepped to her closet to hang up her lunch  clothes.

He stepped close behind her, raised the pistol and the plastic bottle,  and pulled the trigger. There was a smothered pop sound, not much louder than their voices. The second shot was slightly louder because of  the hole in the bottle, but still not enough to worry him. He watched  her collapse onto the carpet, then touched her carotid artery. Dead.

He went back to searching the apartment. In-call escorts didn’t  have time to rush off to the bank every time they accumulated a lot  of cash, and they couldn’t deposit big sums anyway. At least Catherine  couldn’t. She had no way to explain to the IRS where she was getting  more than two thousand dollars a day. He had found about thirty-five  thousand in the apartment while she had been out with her friends  today. Predictably, she had hidden it in her bedroom. He wished he  could search the rest of the apartment thoroughly, but the moment  he had pulled the trigger, he had given up that option. It was already  late afternoon, and as he took her purse from the bed and pulled out  the cash in her wallet, he could hear her cell phone buzzing.

While he’d searched the apartment he had been cleaning it too.  Now he stopped searching and turned to cleaning in earnest. Lately,  he had become extremely careful about the way he left a woman. He  made certain that there were no fingerprints, hairs, or fibers. There  were people in this world who were too dumb to think of all the devices  that were able to prove that a person had been somewhere. He  always cleaned out the drains—even opening the traps where there  were hairs in the pipes. He vacuumed the floors and the furniture,  emptied the canister into a trash bag, and took the bag with him. He  laundered the sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. None of the women  he left had ever given her apartment a more thorough cleaning than  he had.

He knelt behind Catherine’s body; unclasped the gold chain around  her delicate white neck, carefully freeing a couple of strawberry blond  hairs from the clasp; then went to her right ankle and unclasped the  matching anklet. He put them into his pocket. He picked up his gym bag, set it on the bed, unwrapped the duct  tape from the gun, and removed the bottle. Then he put them into  the bag, zipped it shut, and went to the bedroom door. He looked  back once. It was a shame. She was so much more beautiful than she  knew, and so kind. He picked up his trash bag, went out to the hall  door, stopped there and listened, then opened it a crack and looked  out to be sure the hall was clear. He locked the door and walked out  the front entrance toward his car.

Once he was on the road, he felt confident. He knew that if the cops  found a man’s hair, prints, or clothing fiber in Catherine Hamilton’s  room, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. There were probably  forty guys a week leaving physical traces of themselves in that apartment,  and none of them had any lasting relationship with her.

She had been very pretty, with bright catlike eyes and that strawberry  blond hair. She’d had her hair done in a salon that was full of  movie actresses who were still perfect specimens and hadn’t gotten  famous enough to have the hairdressers go to their houses yet. She  had fitted in. She was one of those girls who had started taking money  for sex because it was so easy that one night the temptation had just  pulled her in. She never took drugs or even drank, so that wasn’t even a  small part of her decision. She had gone to college, and she was smart.

She had been seduced by arithmetic. If she had been a lawyer, she  could have charged clients about four hundred an hour, and given  back two hundred and fifty on office rent, taxes, secretaries, and student  loans. Instead she charged three hundred an hour, and about  once a month she’d buy some new thongs and thigh-high stockings.  She’d told him once she liked men well enough close-up, so the job  hadn’t been a huge chore.

Selling sex was a profession that put girls in a position to control  men—promising, teasing, coaxing. It made some girls jump to conclusions. Because they could manipulate men so easily, they imagined  they must be smarter or stronger. A lot of them died of that.  Catherine had been wiser. She had lived within the bounds of reality,  not getting overconfident or foolhardy, and not taking anything for  granted.

Her only problem was that she had run into him. She had liked  him and let him sleep in her apartment for a few weeks while he was  in Los Angeles doing a job. He had told her that when the job was  done he would move on. He hadn’t told her that the nature of his job  made it necessary that when he moved on he would have to kill her.

As he got on the eastbound freeway he accelerated rapidly and  changed lanes to place his car behind one truck and in front of the  next. In a minute, by gauging the speeds of the other cars on the  freeway and inserting his between two of them to his left, he found  the perfect speed in the perfect lane and relaxed. He did not think of  Catherine again. She was gone.

Perry is the author of 20 novels including the Jane Whitefield series (Vanishing Act, Dance for the Dead, Shadow Woman, The Face Changers, Blood Money, Runner, and Poison Flower), Death Benefits, and Pursuit, the first recipient of the Gumshoe Award for best novel.




(March 5, 2013)

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