CHAPTER 5

Monday, February 28, 2005

10:30 a.m.

Spencer stepped into Caf? Noir. The scent of coffee and baking cookies hit him hard. It’d been a long time since breakfast-a sausage biscuit from a drive-thru window just as the sun cracked the horizon.

He just didn’t get the whole coffeehouse thing. Three bucks for a cup of fancy coffee with a foreign-sounding name? And what was with the whole tall, grande, super-grande thing? What was wrong with small, medium and large? Or even extra large? Who did they think they were fooling?

He’d made the mistake of ordering an americano once. Thought it would be a good, old-fashioned cup of American coffee. It had proved to be anything but.

Shots of espresso and water. Tasted like burned piss.

He decided to save his money and wait until he got back to HQ for a cup. Glancing around, he saw that from what he knew of coffeehouses, this one was pretty typical. Deep, earthy colors, groupings of comfy, oversize furniture interspersed with tables for conversing or studying. The building, located on a triangular sliver of land called neutral ground in New Orleans, even sported a big old fireplace.

For all the good it would be, he thought. This was New Orleans, after all. Hot and humid, twenty-four/seven, nine months out of twelve.

Spencer crossed to the counter and asked the girl at the cash register for the owner or manager. The girl, who looked to be college-age, smiled and pointed at a tall, willowy blonde restocking the buffet. “The owner. Billie Bellini.”

He thanked her and crossed to the woman. “Billie Bellini?” he asked.

She turned and looked up at him. She was gorgeous. One of those flawlessly beautiful women who could-and probably did-have their pick of men. The kind of woman one didn’t expect to see managing a coffeehouse.

He’d be a liar or a eunuch to say he was immune, though he could honestly claim she wasn’t his type. Too damn high maintenance for a regular Joe like him.

A smile touched the corners of her full lips. “Yes?” she said.

“Detective Spencer Malone. NOPD,” he said as he flashed his badge.

One perfectly arched eyebrow lifted. “Detective? How can I help you?”

“You know a woman named Cassie Finch?”

“I do. She’s one of the regulars.”

“A regular. What exactly does that mean?”

“That she spends a lot of time in here. Everybody knows her.” Her smooth brow wrinkled. “Why?”

He ignored her question and asked another of his own. “How about Beth Wagner?”

“Cassie’s roommate? Not really. She was in once. Cassie introduced us.”

“What about Stacy Killian?”

“Also a regular. They’re friends. But I suspect you already know that.”

Spencer dropped his gaze. The fourth finger of her left hand sported a major rock and a diamond studded gold band. That didn’t surprise him.

“When did you last see Ms. Finch?”

Concern leaped into her eyes. “What is this in reference to?” she asked. “Is Cassie okay?”

“Cassie Finch is dead, Ms. Bellini. She was murdered.”

She brought a hand to her mouth, which had pulled into a perfectly formed O. “There must be some mistake.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Excuse me, I-” She fumbled behind her for a chair, then sank onto it. For long moments, she sat motionless, struggling, he suspected, to compose herself.

When she finally looked back up at him, it was without tears. “She was in yesterday afternoon.”

“For how long?”

“A couple of hours. From about three to five.”

“Was she alone?”

“Yes.”

“She talk to anyone?”

The woman clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “Yes. All the usual suspects.”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry.” She cleared her throat. “Other regulars. The usual crew was in.”

“Was Stacy Killian in yesterday?”

Again, her expression tightened with alarm. “No. Is Stacy…is she all right?”

“As far as I know, she’s fine.” He paused. “It would help us immensely if I could get the names of the people Cassie hung out with. The regulars.”

“Of course.”

“Did she have any enemies?”

“No. I can’t imagine she did, anyway.”

“Altercations with anyone?”

“No.” Her voice shook. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“I understand she was into fantasy role-playing games.” He paused; when she didn’t disagree, he went on. “She always have her laptop with her?”

“Always.”

“Never saw her without it?”

“Never.”

He nodded. “I’d like to speak with your employees, Ms. Bellini.”

“Of course. Nick and Josie are coming in at two and five, respectively. That’s Paula. Shall I call her over?” He nodded and retrieved a business card from his jacket pocket. He handed it to her. “If you think of anything else, call me.”

It turned out Paula knew even less than her boss had, but Spencer gave her a business card as well.

He stepped out of the coffeehouse and into the cool, bright morning. Channel 6’s meteorologist had predicted the mercury would top seventy today, and judging by the warmth already, she’d been right.

Loosening his tie, he started for his car, which was parked at the curb.

“Detective Malone, wait!”

He stopped, turned. Stacy Killian slammed her car door and hurried toward him. “Hello, Ms. Killian.”

She motioned to the coffeehouse. “Did you get everything you needed here?”

“For the moment. How can I help you?”

“I was wondering, have you looked into White Rabbit yet?”

“Not yet.”

“May I ask what’s taking so long?”

He looked at his watch, then back at her. “By my calculations, this investigation is only eight hours old.”

“And the probability of it being solved lessens with each passing hour.”

“Why’d you leave the Dallas force, Ms. Killian?”

“Excuse me?”

He noticed the way she subtly stiffened. “It was a simple question. Why’d you leave?”

“I needed a change.”

“That the only reason?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything, Detective.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I just wondered since you seem pretty anxious to do my job.”

Color flooded her cheeks. “Cassie was my friend. I don’t want her killer to get away.”

“Neither do I. Back off and let me do my job.”

He started past her; she caught his arm. “White Rabbit is the best lead you have.”

“Says you. I’m not convinced.”

“Cassie had met someone who promised to introduce her to the game. They had planned to meet.”

“Could be a coincidence. We meet people all the time, Ms. Killian. They come and go in our lives, strangers who cross our paths on a daily basis, making deliveries, speaking to us in the checkout line, offering to pick up something we’ve dropped. But they don’t kill us.”

“Most of the time they don’t,” she corrected. “Her computer was gone, wasn’t it? Why do you think that is?”

“Her killer took it as a trophy. Or decided he needed one. Or it’s at the repair shop.”

“Some games are played online. Maybe White Rabbit is one of them?”

He shook off her hand. “You’re stretching, Ms. Killian. And you know it.”

“I was a detective for ten years-”

“But you’re not now,” he said, cutting her off. “You’re a civilian. Don’t get in my way. Don’t interfere with this investigation. I won’t ask you so nicely next time.”

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