CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Tuesday, July 31, 5:10 PM

Murphy was still fighting to get back to sleep after Kirsten’s call when his phone rang again. He had to be at work at 10:25, semirested and semisober.

He snatched the phone from the nightstand and jabbed the volume button on the side with his thumb to silence his new ringtone. With little sleep and a hangover, even the macabre genius of Warren Zevon could be irritating.

He flipped open the phone. “Hello.”

“Murphy, it’s Romano. You awake?” Lieutenant Louis Romano was the deputy commander of the Homicide Division.

“I am now.”

“I got a message from the captain.”

Murphy pushed himself upright. “What is it?”

“You got a car?”

“I already turned it in.”

“No, I mean a personal car. The captain wants you to go somewhere.”

“I want him to go somewhere too. I want him to jump up my ass.”

“This is serious, Murphy. He wants you to meet Gaudet at a crime scene.”

A knot formed in the pit of Murphy’s stomach. “Why?”

“Your boy struck again,” Romano said.

Murphy felt his grip tighten on the phone. It wasn’t another prostitute. They wouldn’t have called him for that. “Where?”

“On Freret, above Broadway. It’s bad, Murph, really bad. There’s three dead.”

“Three?”

“A mother and two kids.”

“Jesus Christ,” Murphy said.

“The captain and the assistant chief want you ten ninety-seven ASAP,” Romano said, using the police code for arriving on the scene.

“I’m assigned to CE amp;P.”

“Not anymore.”

The two-story house was immaculate, except for all the blood on the kitchen floor.

Murphy stood with Gaudet at the edge of the den, a foot away from the kitchen. They wore latex gloves. Crime-scene techs and a couple of uniformed cops waited in the foyer. The coppery smell of blood hung in the air.

The coroner’s investigator hadn’t arrived yet.

The victim lay on her stomach, legs apart, wearing only a T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. Cotton shorts lay crumpled on the floor two feet from her body, the panties still inside.

She didn’t fit the profile the serial killer had followed so far. She was white, middle-class, and killed inside her own home. But a black plastic cable tie was cinched around her neck.

Murphy tried to look at every new case as a blank slate. If he had a theory about the case going in, he attempted to disprove it. He had seen firsthand during the Houma investigation how eager most police officials were to dump every open murder case on a serial killer. It was called stacking the deck, and it was an easy way to clear unsolved homicides.

In Houma, Murphy had spent more than thirty hours interviewing Rudolph Dominique. Dominique confessed to twenty-three murders, every one of which he knew details about that the investigators had not released to the public. Still, law-enforcement agencies from as far away as Shreveport sent detectives to Houma to try to get Dominique to confess to murders he knew nothing about.

“What makes you think it was him?” Murphy asked Gaudet.

Gaudet tiptoed across the kitchen floor. He stood astride the dead woman’s legs and aimed a flashlight at her right butt cheek.

Murphy stepped into the kitchen. Standing beside the woman’s head, he looked down at the circle of light. He saw a series of lacerations on her skin that seemed to form a pattern.

“What is it?” he asked.

Gaudet jerked his head in a “come here” motion. “Look at it from this end.”

Careful not to tread in the blood, Murphy stepped around the body and stood beside Gaudet.

“Read it,” Gaudet said.

Murphy stared hard at the cuts. The longer he stared the more they looked like two letters and a numeral. “ L-D -6?” he said.

Gaudet shook his head. “ L-O-G. As in Lamb of God.”

“How many people know what was in the letter?”

After a sideways glance at Murphy, Gaudet said, “Apparently, one more than I thought. Kirsten told you?”

Murphy shrugged.

“After that hit piece she did on you, I’m surprised you’re still speaking to her.”

“You spoke to her.”

Gaudet smiled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I appreciate you trying to help me out.”

Gaudet switched off his flashlight. “Anything for a brother.”

“What did you hold back from the letter?” Murphy asked.

“The name, for one. Also that the killer said he was going to mark his future victims for us. We’re all idiots, he said, all except you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Kirsten didn’t tell you the guy mentioned you in his letter?”

Murphy shook his head. “What did it say?”

“She tell you about the finger?”

Murphy felt a flutter deep in his bowels. “The what?”

“Crazy motherfucker put a chopped-off finger in with the letter, said it was from the girl under the Jeff Davis overpass.”

“And he mentioned me in his letter?”

“He said you were the only cop smart enough to recognize his work-his words-so he promised to mark his future victims so we could identify them.” Gaudet turned on his flashlight and again angled the beam down at the letters carved into the woman’s skin. “I’m guessing this is his mark.”

“Is the finger legit?”

“It’s a real finger,” Gaudet said. “The crime lab is trying to match the print right now with a criminal record so we can see if the photo and description match the victim under the overpass.”

Murphy nodded toward the dead woman at their feet. “Who found her?”

“Boyfriend.”

“Where’s the husband?”

“Divorced.”

“Boyfriend got a key?”

Gaudet shook his head. “He knocked. No one answered. The door was unlocked, so he let himself in. Found the woman here, kids upstairs.”

Murphy looked at the staircase on the opposite side of the den. He dreaded climbing those stairs. “How old are they?”

“Nine and six. A boy and a girl.”

“Son of a bitch.”

Murphy’s head felt like it was spinning, like he was drunk. When he had walked in the front door, he noticed an unusual somberness among the cops already at the scene. He understood the reason. There was nothing worse than working the murder of a child.

“How did he kill them?”

“He suffocated one and strangled the other,” Gaudet said. He took a deep breath. “Looks like the boy was raped.”

They stood in silence, staring down at the dead woman.

Finally, Murphy said, “I know it’s probably a waste of time, but we’ve got to look at the ex-husband.”

“He already called the office. He’s at a doctor’s conference, in London.”

Murphy walked back into the den. Gaudet followed.

“The letter included a coded message,” Gaudet said.

“What kind of code?”

“A bunch of letters and numbers. Looks like CIA shit to me.”

The case was getting bizarre, Murphy thought. A dead mother, two murdered children, a victim’s finger, his own name in a letter, a fucking code. And more victims to come. He was sure of that.

Murphy turned to his partner. “Why did the captain bring me here?”

“You’re back on the case,” Gaudet said. “Detailed from CE amp;P to Homicide.”

“Detailed, not reassigned?”

“That’s the word the man used.”

“What about PIB?”

Gaudet shrugged.

“Don’t bullshit me, Juan.”

Dropping his voice to a whisper, Gaudet said, “Word is, PIB still has a green light. But if you can put this case down you’ll be a hero. They won’t be able to touch you after that.”

“You ever hear of Melvin Purvis?”

Gaudet shook his head. “Was he on the job?”

“Never mind,” Murphy said. “To hell with PIB and the rank. They may be digging my grave, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to pick up a shovel and help. They wanted me off the case, I’m off.”

“Hey, partner, this is me asking. I need your help.”

“You got the whole Homicide Division.”

“This is make or break, brother,” Gaudet said. “Right now, I’m the primary. If I don’t catch this guy, I’ll be out on my ass, back in a district.” He patted his stomach. “And I don’t think my uniforms fit anymore.”

Murphy eyed his friend’s belly and laughed. Then he stared across the den into the kitchen. “All right,” he said. “But I’m not doing it for the rank.” He nodded toward the dead woman. “I’m doing it for her and those two kids, and for all the other victims.”

Gaudet smiled. “So how do we catch this sick fuck?”

“Any way we can.”

“Sparks,” city editor Gene Michaels shouted across the frenzied newsroom. Deadline was only a couple hours away. Everyone was pounding their keyboards.

Kirsten glanced up from her computer screen. She was busy working on tomorrow’s front-page story about the serial killer’s letter. She kept typing.

“Sparks, I need you,” Michaels shouted again.

Kirsten pushed herself up from her chair. She looked across the sea of heads at the city editor’s desk. Michaels was on his feet.

“What?” Kirsten said, hoping he picked up on the annoyance in her voice.

“Triple slaying on Freret Street.”

The newsroom din faded.

Kirsten grabbed her phone and waved it at him. Two seconds later, it rang.

Michaels didn’t bother with a greeting. “Since the command desk put out the call a couple of hours ago, there hasn’t been any chatter about it. I think Homicide must be using a secure frequency, something they almost never do.”

“He couldn’t have killed three women at one time?”

“It’s not three women,” Michaels said. “It’s a mother and her two children.”

“How do you know that?”

“A source at EMS just told me.”

“Jesus,” Kirsten said. “Still, that doesn’t sound like the serial killer, and I don’t have time to chase it down. I’m trying to finish my story for tomorrow.”

“You remember that call Detective Gaudet got right before he and Landry bolted out of our meeting?”

“Yeah.”

“As soon as I got back to my desk and flipped on my scanner, the command desk was dispatching detective and crime-lab units to Freret Street.”

Kirsten noticed a slight tremor in the editor’s voice. “I’ll make a call,” she said.

“Thanks.”

Kirsten hung up and dug through her imitation Prada handbag for her cell phone. She had Gaudet’s number saved. She rang his phone but the call went straight to voice mail. She didn’t bother leaving a message. Like Murphy, Gaudet never checked his messages. It was a cop thing.

Kirsten slung her briefcase over her shoulder and walked across the newsroom to Gene Michaels’s desk.

The city editor turned his chair to face her.

She noticed his face was a couple of shades whiter than its customary chalk color. Michaels was in his early sixties. Kirsten knew that he and his wife had lost a son several years ago. It was something he always carried with him. The news of the murder of two children had evidently hit him hard.

“I’ll go, but I need an extension on my deadline,” Kirsten said.

Michaels glanced at the clock radio on his desk. It was 7:05. Deadline was nine o’clock. “How much?”

“Eleven o’clock.”

He shook his head. “Ten is the best I can do.”

Kirsten nodded. “If this thing on Freret is a goose chase…”

“I have a bad feeling,” Michaels said. “I think the killer just stepped up, exactly like Murphy said he would.”

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