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Holiday in Death, Page 2

J. D. Robb

  At least a dozen festively wrapped boxes were crushed under it.

  She reached for her weapon, drew it, and circled the room.

  There was no other obvious sign of violence, not there. The couple on the view screen reached simultaneous climax with throaty, animal moans. Eve sidestepped past it. Listened, listened.

  Heard music. Quiet, cheerful, monotonous. She didn't know the tune, but recognized it as one of the insidious Christmas ditties that played everywhere for weeks during the season.

  She swept her weapon over a short corridor. Two doors, both open. In one she could see a sink, a toilet, the edge of a tub, all in gleaming white. Keeping her back to the wall, she slid toward the second door, where the music played on and on.

  She smelled it, fresh death. Both metallic and fruity. Easing the door all the way open, she found it.

  She moved into the room, swinging right, then left, eyes sharp, ears alert. But she knew she was alone with what had been Marianna Hawley. Still she checked the closet, behind the drapes, then left the room to search the rest of the apartment before she relaxed her guard.

  Only then did she approach the bed.

  2A had been right, she thought. The woman had been a looker. Not stunning, not an eye-popper, but a pretty woman with soft brown hair and deep green eyes. Death hadn't robbed her of that, not yet.

  Her eyes were wide and startled, as the dead's often were. Against the dull pallor of her cheeks careful and subtle color had been applied. Her lashes were darkened, her lips painted a festive cherry red. An ornament had been pinned to her hair just above the right ear -- a small glittery tree with a plump gilded bird on one of its silver branches.

  She was naked but for that and the sparkling silver garland that had been artistically wrapped around her body. Eve wondered, as she studied the raw bruising around the neck, if that was what had been used to strangle her.

  There was more bruising on the wrists, on the ankles, indicating the victim had been bound, and had likely had time to struggle.

  On the entertainment unit beside the bed, the singer suggested she have herself a merry little Christmas.

  Sighing, Eve pulled out her communicator. "Dispatch, this is Dallas, Lieutenant Eve. I have a homicide."

  * * *

  "Heck of a way to start the day." Officer Peabody stifled a yawn and studied the victim with dark cop's eyes. Despite the atrociously early hour, Peabody's uniform was crisp and pressed, her dark brown bowl-cut hair ruthlessly tamed.

  The only thing that indicated she'd been rudely roused out of bed was the sleep crease lining her left cheek.

  "Heck of a way to end one," Eve muttered. "Prelim on scene indicates death occurred at twenty-four hundred hours, almost to the minute." She shifted aside to let the team from the Medical Examiner's office verify her findings. "Indications are cause of death was strangulation. The lack of defensive wounds further indicate the victim didn't struggle until after she was bound."

  Gently, Eve lifted the dead woman's left ankle and examined the raw skin. "Vaginal and anal bruising indicate she was sexually molested before she was killed. The unit's soundproofed. She could have screamed her lungs out."

  "I didn't see any signs of forced entry, no signs of struggle in the living area except for the Christmas tree. That looked deliberate to me."

  Eve nodded, slanted Peabody a look. "Good eye. See the man in 2A, Peabody, and get the security discs for this floor. Let's see who came calling."

  "Right away."

  "Set a couple of uniforms on the door-to-door," Eve added as she walked over to the tele-link by the side of the bed. "Somebody turn that damn music off."

  "You don't sound like you're in the holiday spirit." Peabody hit the off button on the sound system with a clear sealed finger. "Sir."

  "Christmas is a pain in the ass. You finished here?" she demanded of the ME's team. "Let's turn her over before she's bagged."

  The blood had found its lowest level, settling in the buttocks and turning them a sickly red. Bowel and bladder had emptied, the waste of death. Through the seal coat on her hands, Eve felt the waxy-doll texture of the skin.

  "This looks fresh," she murmured. "Peabody, get this on video before you go down." Eve studied the bright tattoo on the right shoulder blade as Peabody moved in to document it.

  "My True Love." Peabody pursed her lips over the bright red letters that flowed in old-fashioned script over the white flesh.

  "Looks like a temporary to me." Eve bent lower until her nose all but brushed the curve of shoulder, sniffed. "Recently applied. We'll check where she gets body work done."

  "Partridge in a pear tree."

  Eve straightened, lifted a brow at her aide. "What?"

  "In her hair, the pin in her hair. On the first day of Christmas." Because Eve continued to look blank, Peabody shook her head. "It's an old Christmas song, Lieutenant. The Twelve Days of Christmas.' The guy gives his true love something on every day, starting with a partridge in a pear tree on the first day."

  "What the hell is anybody supposed to do with a bird in a tree? Stupid gift." But a sick suspicion churned in her gut. "Let's hope this was his only true love. Get me those tapes. Bag her," she ordered, then turned once more to the bedside 'link.

  While the body was being removed, she ordered all incoming and outgoing transmissions for the previous twenty-four hours.

  The first came in at just past eighteen hundred hours -- a cheerful conversation between the victim and her mother. As Eve listened, studied the mother's laughing face, she thought of how that same face would look when she called and told the woman her daughter was dead.

  The only other transmission was an outgoing. Good-looking guy, Eve mused as she studied the image on screen. Mid-thirties, quick smile, soulful brown eyes. Jerry, the victim called him. Or Jer. Lots of sexual by-play, teasing. A lover then. Maybe her true love.

  Eve removed the disc, sealed it, and slipped it into her bag. She located Marianna's daybook, porta-'link, and address book in the desk under the window. A quick scroll through the entries netted her one Jeremy Vandoren.

  Alone now, Eve turned back to the bed. Stained sheets were tangled at the foot. The clothes that had been carefully cut off the victim and tossed to the floor were bagged for evidence. The apartment was silent.

  She let him in, Eve mused. Opened the door to him. Did she come in here with him voluntarily, or did he subdue her first? The tox report would tell her if there were any illegals in the bloodstream.

  Once he had her in the bedroom, he tied her. Hands and feet, likely hooking the restraints' around the short stump of post at each of the four corners, spreading her out like a banquet.

  Then he'd cut off her clothes. Carefully, no hurry. It hadn't been rage or fury or even a desperate kind of need. Calculated, planned, ordered. Then he'd raped her, sodomized her, because he could. He had the power.

  She'd struggled, cried out, probably begged. He'd enjoyed that, fed on that. Rapists did, she thought, and took several deep, steadying breaths because her mind wanted to veer toward her father.

  When he was done, he'd strangled her, watching, watching while her eyes bulged. Then he'd brushed her hair, painted her face, draped her in festive silver garland. Had he brought the hairpin with him, or had it belonged to her? Had she amused herself with the tattoo, or had he decorated her body himself?

  She moved into the neighboring bathroom. White tile sparkled like ice, and there was a faint under-scent of disinfectant.

  He cleaned up here when he was finished, Eve decided. Washing himself, even grooming, then wiping down and spraying the room to remove any evidence.

  Well, she'd put the sweepers on it in any case. One lousy pubic hair could hang him.

  She'd had a mother who loved her, Eve thought. One who'd laughed with her, making holiday plans, talking about sugar cookies.

  "Sir? Lieutenant?"

  Eve glanced over her shoulder, saw Peabody in the center of the hallway. "What?"

  "I ha
ve the security discs. Two uniforms are initiating door-to-doors."

  "Okay." Eve rubbed her hands over her face. "Let's seal the place up, take everything to Central. I have to inform the next of kin." She shouldered her bag, picked up her field kit. "You're right, Peabody. It's a heck of a way to start the day."


  "Did you run the 'link number on the boyfriend?"

  "Yes, sir. Jeremy Vandoren, lives on Second Avenue, he's an account exec for Foster, Bride and Rumsey on Wall Street." Peabody glanced at her notebook as she relayed the rest. "Divorced, currently single, thirty-six. And a very attractive specimen of the male species. Sir."

  "Hmm." Eve slipped the security disc into her desk unit. "Let's see if the very attractive specimen paid a call on his girlfriend last night."

  "Can I get you some coffee, Lieutenant?"


  "Can I get you some coffee?"

  Eve's eyes narrowed as she scanned the video. "If you want coffee, Peabody, just say so."

  Behind Eve's back, Peabody rolled her eyes. "I want coffee."

  "Then get some -- and get some for me while you're at it. Victim arriving home at sixteen forty-five. Pause disc," Eve ordered and took a good look at Marianna Hawley.

  Trim, pretty, young, her shining brown hair covered with a bright red beret that matched the long swirl of her coat and the slick shine of her boots.

  "She'd been shopping," Peabody commented as she set the mug of coffee at Eve's elbow.

  "Yeah. Bloomingdale's. Continue scan," Eve said and watched as Marianna shifted her bags, dug out her key card. Her mouth was moving, Eve noted. Talking to herself. No, she realized, Marianna was singing. Then the woman shook back her hair, shifted her bags once again, stepped inside the apartment, and shut the door.

  The red lock light blinked on.

  As the disc continued, Eve saw other tenants coming and going, alone, in couples. Ordinary lives, moving forward.

  "She stayed in for dinner," Eve stated, looking now with her mind's eye, through the door, inside the apartment.

  She could see Marianna moving around the rooms, wearing the simple navy slacks and white sweater that would later be cut from her body.

  Turn the viewing screen on for company. Hang up the bright red coat in the front closet, put the hat on the shelf, the boots on the floor. Tuck away the shopping bags.

  She was a tidy woman who liked pretty things, preparing for a quiet evening at home.

  "Fixed herself some soup at about seven, according to her AutoChef." Eve drummed short, unpainted nails on the desk as she continued the scan. "Her mother called, then she called the boyfriend."

  While she clicked off the time frame in her mind, she saw the elevator doors open. Her brows winged up, disappearing under the fringe of bangs on her forehead. "Well, ho ho ho, what have we here?"

  "Santa Claus." Grinning, Peabody leaned over Eve's shoulder. "Bearing gifts."

  The man in the red suit and snowy white beard carried a large box wrapped in silver paper and trimmed with an elaborate bow of gold and green.

  "Hold it. Pause. Enlarge sector ten through fifty, thirty percent."

  The screen shifted, the section Eve designated separating, then popping out. Nestled in the center of the fancy bow was a silver tree with a plump gilded bird.

  "Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch, that's the thing that was in her hair."

  "But... that's Santa Claus."

  "Get a grip on yourself, Peabody. Continue scan. He's going to her door," Eve muttered, watching as the cheerful figure carried his glossy burden to Marianna's apartment. He pressed her buzzer with a gloved finger, waited a beat, then threw back his head and laughed. Almost instantly, Marianna opened the door, her face glowing, her eyes sparkling with delight.

  She scooped back her hair with one hand, then opened the door wider in invitation.

  Santa tossed one quick glance over his shoulder, looked directly at the camera. Smiled, winked.

  "Freeze video. The bastard. Cocky bastard. Print hard copy of image on screen," she ordered while studying the round, ruddy-cheeked face and sparkling blue eyes. "He knew we'd view the discs, see him. He's enjoying it."

  "He dressed up as Santa." Peabody continued to gape at the screen. "That's disgusting. That's just... wrong."

  "What? If he'd dressed up as Satan it would have been more appropriate?"

  "Yes -- no." Peabody moved her shoulders, shuffled her feet. "It's just... well, it's really sick."

  "It's also really smart." Eyes flat, Eve waited while the image printed out. "Who's going to shut the door in Santa's face? Continue scan."

  The door closed behind them, and the hallway remained empty.

  The timer running along the bottom of the screen marked at twenty-one thirty-three.

  So, he took his time, Eve mused, nearly two and a half hours. The rope he'd used to tie her, and anything else he might have needed, would have been in that big shiny box.

  At eleven, a couple got off the elevator, laughing, a little drunk, arm in arm as they passed Marianna's door. Oblivious to what was going on inside.

  Fear and pain.


  The door opened at half past midnight. The man in the red suit stepped out, still carrying his silver box, a smile wide, almost fierce, on his red-cheeked face. Once more he looked directly at the camera, and now there was madness glowing in his eyes.

  He was dancing as he got on the elevator.

  "Copy disc to file Hawley. Case number 25176-H. How many days of Christmas did you say there were, Peabody? In the song?"

  "Twelve." Peabody soothed her dry throat with coffee. "Twelve days."

  "We'd better find out if Hawley was his true love, or if he has eleven more." She rose. "Let's talk to the boyfriend."

  * * *

  Jeremy Vandoren worked inside a small box in a hive of small boxes. His stingy cubicle held a workstation just big enough to accommodate his computer and phone system and a three-wheeled chair. Pinned to the flimsy walls were printouts of stock reports, a theater schedule, a Christmas card showcasing a well-endowed woman wearing strategically placed snowflakes, and a photo of Marianna Hawley.

  He barely glanced up when Eve stepped inside; he held up a hand to hold her off and continued to work the keyboard of his computer manually while talking rapidly into a headset.

  "Comstat's at five and an eighth, Kenmart's down three and three-quarters. No, Roarke Industries just took a leap up six points. Our analysts look for it to go up another two by end of day."

  Eve raised a brow and tucked her hands in the pockets of her trousers. She was standing here waiting to talk murder, and Roarke was making millions.

  It was just weird.

  "Done." Vandoren hit another key and had a tangle of mysterious figures and symbols swimming onto the screen. She let him fiddle another thirty seconds, then pulled her badge out of her pocket and held it in front of his face.

  He blinked twice, then turned and focused on her. "I've got that. You're set. Absolutely. Thanks." With a puzzled smile -- slightly nervous around the edges -- Vandoren swiveled the mike of his headset to the side. "Um, Lieutenant, what can I do for you?"

  "Jeremy Vandoren?"

  "Yeah." His deep brown eyes slid past her, brushed over Peabody, then slid back. "Am I in trouble?"

  "Have you done something illegal, Mr. Vandoren?"

  "Not that I can remember." He tried a smile again, bringing a small dimple to life at the corner of his mouth. "Not unless that candy bar I stole when I was eight's come back to haunt me."

  "Do you know Marianna Hawley?"

  "Marianna, sure. Don't tell me Mari's nicked a candy bar." Then abruptly, like a light winking off, the smile disappeared. "What is it? Has something happened? Is she all right?"

  He was out of his chair, his eyes scanning over the top of the cubicle as if he expected to see her.

  "Mr. Vandoren, I'm sorry." Eve had never found a good way to relay the news, so she settled on relay
ing it quickly. "Ms. Hawley is dead."

  "No, she's not. No," he said again, turning those dark eyes back to Eve. "She's not. That's ridiculous. I just talked to her last night. We're meeting for dinner at seven. She's fine. You've made a mistake."

  "There's no mistake. I'm sorry," she repeated as he only continued to stare at her. "Marianna Hawley was murdered last night in her apartment."

  "Marianna? Murdered?" He continued to shake his head slowly, as if the two words were foreign. "That's definitely wrong. That's just wrong." He whirled around, fumbled to his desk 'link. "I'll call her right now. She's at work."

  "Mr. Vandoren." Eve put a firm hand on his shoulder and nudged him into his chair. There was no place for her to sit, so she eased a hip on the desk so their faces could be more on level. "She's been identified through fingerprints and DNA. If you can manage it, I'd like you to come with me and do a visual confirmation."

  "A visual..." He sprang up again, his elbow rapping Eve's shoulder and causing the still healing wound to sing. "Yeah, I'll come with you. Damn right I will. Because it's not her. It's not Marianna."

  * * *

  The morgue was never a cheerful place. The fact that someone in either an optimistic or macabre frame of mind had hung red and green balls from the ceiling and draped ugly gold tinsel around the doorways only succeeded in added a kind of smirking grin over death.

  Eve stood at the viewing window as she had stood too many times before. And she felt, as she had felt too many times before, the hard jerk of shock punch through the man beside her as he saw Marianna Hawley lying on the other side of the glass.

  The sheet that covered her to the chin would have been hastily draped. To hide from friends, family, and loved ones the pitiful nakedness of the dead, the slices in the flesh left by the Y incision, the temporary stamp on the instep that gave that body a name and number.

  "No." In a helpless gesture, Vandoren pressed both hands to the barrier. "No, no, no, this can't be right. Marianna."