Beta Read by Gemini
Written for PetFly by Paul B Margolis
internal thought in italics
Her legs could barely carry her as she staggered down the corridor to the elevator; her head swam from the force of the blow that had slammed her into the floor. Terror squeezed her lungs shut, and she had to fight for breath. Desperate fear kept her moving as fast as she could. Pop, pop, pop! Such small sounds, but she was sure Max was dead; the acrid smell of the discharge had filled the room.
Banging on the button for the elevator, she heard the machinery start to clank and whirr. "Hurry, hurry!" she whimpered, leaning against the wall, looking back down the corridor. Max was dead, and the man would come for her next. This Karl had been fine in the bar, fine in the hotel room, fine until he spotted Max with his camera on the balcony.
The elevator door swished open and she flew in, frantically pressing herself against the wall as she pushed the lobby button. Even as the door closed, she expected to see the man come flying down the corridor, his hand sliding through the door just before it shut, forcing it open and smiling as the gun gave its deadly pop, pop, pop.
He didn't come.
She walked rapidly, her heels banging out an urgent staccato on the glossy marble slabs that paved the lobby. Pushing her way through the revolving doors, she was out. She moved swiftly into the fringe of a group of college kids who were just passing; their shouts and antics concealed her well. Two blocks on she hailed a cab. As she climbed in, she cast a look up and down the busy sidewalk. No sign of Karl. She slumped back against the decaying leather seat, impregnated with the smell of too many stale bodies, but for once it didn't bother her.
The cab passed along familiar streets, taking her home. She was clean; there was nothing to tie her to Max's death. She just had to keep quiet. No one could ever prove she was in that room as long as she kept her mouth shut. It would be better to stay away from places she had been seen with Max. She didn't need to use the Pigale club. There were enough regular clients calling her directly to keep her in funds. Just no more 'extras' with Max. That was okay for now. It had been a nice little scam, and there was no reason she couldn't work it again someday. She took a deep breath; the pain in her jaw and the stinging in her ear where she had lost the earring were uncomfortable now that her fear was fading.
She'd have to find out just what the connection was between the killer and her best client. The information could be useful.
Two, small, perfect circles of nothing surrounded by radiating patterns of shattered glass showed the paths of the two bullets that had ended the young man's life. Jim lifted his head as Simon spoke. "Name is Max Vaughn. He's…uh…rather he was the manager of a fancy strip club downtown. Club Pigale."
"Oh, hey, that's the one down on Sixth Street." The look of discomfort on Blair's face as the two older men fixed him with quizzical stares was so comical that Jim had to suppress a grin.
"I go past it on my way to school." Blair looked at them both. "Just past it!" he repeated indignantly.
Simon turned back to Jim with a longsuffering sigh. "Yeah. Well, Vaughn also manages a string of call girls on the side. Now Vice has suspected him for months of running a little blackmail scheme. You know, he brings the clients in with the girls, videotapes them, then makes them pay to get the tape back. They've never been able to get any of the johns to testify."
Jim wandered back across the room, scanning for anything useful as he listened to Simon explain that a 'knockout' in the bar with a 'businessman' had charged drinks to this room earlier.
"This camera was on the balcony." The captain held up the bag containing the expensive piece of equipment. "Of course, the cassette is missing."
Jim nodded. "So, you figure he tried his scam on the wrong guy, and the john killed him."
"Well, that's what it looks like."
Jim glanced briefly at Blair, who was watching the young man's corpse being zipped up in the medical examiner's black body bag. Max was probably the same age as many of Blair's students, and it didn't take much imagination to follow his train of thought. Blair looked up and gave him a half-smile, then frowned and looked over to Simon. "What happened to the girl?"
"There's no sign of her."
Blair swallowed hard. "Any chance she was in on the killing?"
Simon shook his head slowly. "Anything is possible."
Jim listened to the exchange with half an ear as he continued to scan the room. The forensics team was following the normal routine, dusting any surface that could conceivably have collected a print. Not all surfaces could hold a print though. His eyes trailed down to the fireplace. What was that? His vision zoomed in and he moved forward. "I don't think she was, Simon."
The two men came over as he bent down and picked up his prize with a handkerchief.
"What have you got, Jim?" Blair asked, peering myopically at the small object.
"It's a woman's earring. There's a smudge of blood on it." Pulling a small plastic evidence bag from his jacket, he carefully placed the earring inside and held it up so the others could see it clearly. "I'd say the john was here with the girl, spots Vaughn on the balcony and figures he's been set up, smacks her around a little bit and pumps a couple of holes through the door."
Blair frowned. "Why didn't he kill her, too? Where's her body?"
Jim was way ahead of him. "Because he goes to check on Vaughn and somehow the girl manages to escape."
Simon nodded his agreement. "Certainly possible, Jim. Why don't you two go check out the Pigale? See what you can dig up on Vaughn and the girl. The bartender should be able to give you a good description."
Jim picked up the photo Blair had printed off from the computer files at Club Pigale the previous night, and studied it again. He bit into the warm slice of toast thickly covered with peanut butter and poured a second cup of coffee. The bartender's description of the girl had been very detailed, and looking at the photo, Jim could see why the man had given her his full attention. She was young and beautiful. It had been easy to find the face that matched. He had been stunned when Blair recognized her.
Jim sipped his coffee, enhancing his sense of smell and taste just a little to really savor the new roast he was trying. It was very good. Blair had been so disappointed when he identified the girl, his delight at getting into the club wiped out in a second. "She's a junior, Jim, Amber Larkin. I subbed a couple of times for a class she took last semester. She's really very intelligent, Jim." Jim had kept his mouth shut. "I can access her current schedule on my laptop when we get home."
Jim sighed. It seemed that Miss Larkin was working her way through college as a hooker.
Blair emerged from his room, layered, as usual, in multicolored flannel. Damp fronds of hair hung in a heavy frame around his face. Jim pushed over a mug of coffee. "Toast?"
Blair shook his head and buried his face in the mug, eyes closed.
"You said she had a class at 9 o'clock this morning?"
A quick nod was the only response.
"You don't have to come."
Blair looked up. "Yeah, man. I know. It's okay, I'm just…a bit tired, that's all."
Jim nodded. It hadn't taken much in the way of detective skills to spot the dark circles under his eyes.
Forty minutes later Jim caught sight of the girl as she walked towards them across the front of the college. He nudged Blair. "Come on." A few paces, carefully timed, brought them face-to-face with the girl.
Amber looked at the two men who blocked her path, one tall, handsome, well muscled; the other shorter, slighter, with a riot of long, spiral-curled hair, and somehow familiar.
It was the tall guy who spoke to her. "Excuse me, uh, Miss Larkin? My name's Jim Ellison. I was wondering if I could have a minute with you?"
She dealt with his approach with practiced ease. "Actually, I'm late for my psych class."
As she went to move away, he pulled a badge from his jacket. "Cascade PD, Miss Larkin. It's about Max Vaughn."
She was far too experienced to let her feelings show. She stood where she was, her face blank. "Who?" There was no tremor in her voice.
"Your home video director."
Her legs felt like jelly. How had they found her? Never mind, there was no way they could prove she was there. Her reply was unhesitating. "I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you're talking about."
She needed to distract this Ellison. The younger man had not spoken yet, but she was sure she knew him from somewhere. "Do I know you?"
"Blair Sandburg. I'm a grad student in anthropology." She remembered the classes he had taught. In fact, she remembered them very clearly; they stood out in her memory as actually being interesting.
But the hard-faced cop was not distracted, or convinced by her denials. "We've got you tied to Max Vaughn about ten different ways, not least in his files at the Pigale, so you can drop the act."
So that was it, the records at the club. But they still couldn't prove she knew anything about the murder, or Max's little sideline. Time to let a small truth hide the big lie. "Okay, so maybe I've done some occasional escort work to pay for school."
Ellison was relentless. "How about blackmail or murder? You ever done anything like that? That's a nice make-up job, but I can still see where the killer smacked you around."
It was a bluff. This cop had nothing, or she'd already be on her way downtown.
"What killer? I walked into a door, okay?" She met his eyes defiantly.
"Tell me about last night's client. Why did he kill Max?"
Why did this Ellison think she would tell him anything? Men always made the mistake of thinking she was stupid! "Look, I was at home last night studying for finals, all right? If I'm a suspect, arrest me. Otherwise I have a class."
She let the moment play out, and then turned on her heel and walked away. It was men that were stupid! Suckers for a pretty face, they were easy to manipulate. She'd played that game for years; she was an expert.
She heard the young man call after her.
"Amber, Amber, wait up!"
She stopped for a moment.
"If you witnessed a murder, you could be in danger, too."
There was a directness and honesty in the way he spoke that was disarming. She shook her head. "I don't get this. Are you a grad student or a cop?"
His eyes were blue and met hers straight on. "I'm a consultant to the police department."
"And you're going to protect me, right?"
"We will if you let us." He sounded sincere. "I know you're scared, but if you trust me I won't let you down."
He had an open and frank face and seemed genuinely concerned, but she had learned never to trust anyone but herself. Her eyes drifted over his shoulder to where the cop stood, stiff and unyielding, watching her with cold, suspicious eyes. She looked back at Blair. "Look, I was home last night. I didn't see anybody kill anybody, okay?" She didn't wait for his reply, but heard his disbelieving, "Yeah!" as she walked away.
Blair Sandburg, grad student. She stored the information away.