The hotel was close enough that walking would have been faster, but Duncan understood the paparazzi manned every exit. Of course … they weren’t looking for him. On the opposite side of the stretch limo lounged Coral Francesca. Half-drunk from her Oscar win and half from the after-party champagne, she looked at him through unnaturally long lashes while running her bare toes up his pant leg. As she lifted her foot, the slit in her red sequined dress exposed her thin physique to high on her hip. The red matched the roses she’d ordered and had scattered around the spacious interior. Together with the smell of new leather, they almost covered the hint of her menthol cigarettes. As the flowers rested in vases, Coral’s bottle of champagne rested in ice.
She didn’t move when the car pulled under the gold tinted awning. The Plaza was one of the few hotels that offered her needed security and desired attention. Lazily, she rested an arm along the back of the leather seat, then ran her tongue around her ruby lips.
Before her driver had a chance to open the door of the double-long, Duncan called up to him through the small window. “No need, Arnie. I’ve got it.”
Minutely, Coral rolled her eyes before taking another drink. He waited for her to drop her foot from inside the cuff of his pants before opening the door and stepping out. Painted toes slipped into strappy heels. One rested on the curb before the rest of her appeared and held out a hand.
As she drew close, he guided her out of the car. His dark chocolate waves brushed over his starched tuxedo collar. She didn’t discard her bubbly. His black bow tie dangled lazily down the lapel of his jacket.
The doorman dropped his head and stepped aside as they approached. “Good evening, Miss Francesca, Mr. Reed.”
Duncan didn’t recognize the man but understood part of his job was to learn the names of certain guests.
“A bellboy is standing by waiting to escort you to your suite. The room is prepared to your specifications.” He opened the glass door and humbly gestured toward the lobby.
Devoid of acknowledging she’d been spoken to, Coral walked through the door while taking a long drink. She didn’t spill a drop.
Duncan looked down at her ice pick heels as she glided through and had to be somewhat impressed. Placing a hand on the doorman’s shoulder, he shook with the other. “How has your evening been? Or should I say morning?”
“Just fine Mr. Reed sir, just fine. Thank you for asking.” And the doorman pocketed the healthy tip Duncan had slipped between their palms as smooth as a magic trick.
Without bothering to check in, Duncan placed his hand on her elbow, guiding her through the lobby toward the elevators. Heels clinked on the glossy marble floor as her dress followed along. A bellboy hurried to them and handed two keycards to Duncan, then led the way to the correct elevator.
They rode behind him as barely audible jazz streamed from the speakers. Duncan thought the boy couldn’t be more than twenty years old.
Coral turned to him, slid the tie from around his neck and placed it between her teeth. He looked down through tired eyes and ringed his hands around her slim upper arms, squeezing gently.
Turning her chin back to the front of the elevator, she placed a cool hand on top of one of his. She spoke up to the bellboy. “Sheets satin with 1,000 thread count?”
“Yes, Miss Francesca. Chilled champagne, water and sliced fruit. And your lovely portrait hangs above the fireplace.” Duncan could see the boy blush from the backs of his cheeks at the mention of Coral’s nude painting. Well, nude except for the strategically placed boa. Cliché, he thought. It was her dollar.
As the elevator slowed, she purred. “We should start on the third painting tonight, darling. What do you think of my outfit?” she asked as she dangled the tie between her thumb and forefinger.
He sighed at the mention of a third nude. Her dollar, he repeated sarcastically in his mind. Sensing awkward tension as the young boy rocked on the balls of his feet, Duncan led the very tipsy Coral Francesca out of the opening door and into the suite. As she headed for the powder room he, first, checked to see that his two pieces of luggage had made it to the front closet. One held his supplies, the other his personal effects. Next, he moved his eyes above the fireplace to look at his work. Crisp acrylics captured Coral’s style and curt personality. The black background accented her icy, porcelain skin. Four-by-eight foot was a little over the top, but she’d paid him enough for twice the size.
“Thank you … Raymond.” Duncan turned his eyes to the gold-plated name badge as he handed the boy a tip. The bellboy bowed and walked backward, lightly shutting the door behind him.
Oddly, the hotel phone rang as it sat at the end of the bar. He had no intention of answering, but it made him think to check his own. Pulling it out of his inside pocket, he saw he’d missed three calls. By the fifth ring, he decided to pick up the hotel phone.
The voice on the other end was that of the uncle who’d raised him from the time he was a small boy. “Dad.” Instinctually, Duncan felt contentment and set a thigh on one of the bar stools. Contentment, that is, until he realized his uncle must have used Coral’s code name Duncan had given him to get through only in the case of an emergency. He listened as his uncle used an everything is okay disclaimer just as Coral walked out of the bathroom wearing nothing but her heels and … Duncan’s tie.
“What it is? Is it Brie?” He contained his reaction regarding the only woman he’d ever let into his heart, the one who took the place of the mother who was taken from him. The one who always believed in him. The one who nearly took a bullet for him.
Fell down the deck stairs? Hospital? Overnight for observation? “Why didn’t you call me earlier? I know, I know. I had a … a thing.” He checked his watch as sweat formed along the back of his neckline, and then turned for his bags.
“Thing?!” Behind the bar, a ceramic vase crashed over his head. “That thing was the damned Oscars with the Best Supporting Actress on your arm!” He looked up just as Coral picked up the plate of fruit. “And who the hell is Brie?!”
Odd, he thought. How long had they been together, and she still didn’t remember Brie’s name? Small bits of fruit scattered through the air. “No. Yes.” He spoke into the phone. “No, I’m taking the next flight. I’ll call you from the cab.” Hanging up, he headed toward his luggage.
“Cab? You’re not leaving! Baby. We’ve got two more paintings!”
Hospital. He felt his back tense, then straighten. For a fall down some stairs? Brie was tougher than that. He ducked from the first flying shoe as he left the room and used the door as a shield from the other. Pressing the down arrow, the elevator opened almost immediately. The bellboy stepped out to see him standing with his bags and Coral naked with dripping flowers in one hand and a vase in the other.
The boy ducked into the elevator followed by Duncan and shards of glass.
“Get back in here and paint me!”
* * * *
The six a.m. flight out of LAX took off without delay, which was a good thing since the transfer in O’Hare wasn’t late either. Duncan reclined in first class, ankles crossed and a forearm covering his eyes. The last few minutes before the Rochester descent were used to review the past twelve hours in his head one more time.
Quiet and peaceful, the flight had given him the needed mode to process what his uncle had told him during the cab ride to the airport. Their new golden retriever pup found a mutilated dog on their deck. Brie fell down the short flight of wooden steps trying to keep him from it. A few broken ribs, some cuts and bruises. But her white blood cell count was high, so they kept her to run some tests. He’d used his tablet to search the Net for what that could mean and narrowed it down to a few million possibilities.
As requested by a sultry voice over the intercom, he raised his bucket seat to the fully upright position. Sitting up, he rolled the sleeves of the rich brown button-down shirt he’d changed into. Licks of flames from the tattoo on his left forearm crept from beneath the cotton, pointing toward his wrist.
Mutilated dog? That didn’t make sense. That was Melbourne’s signature move, and she was still in prison. He’d just attended her parole hearing a few months earlier. He never missed a parole hearing. Never. He was very capable of controlling his emotions, a skill he’d learned at a very young age. Still, his heartbeat yearned to quicken. The bitch would not creep back into his head. It had been twenty-two years since she was put away, and one of her many convictions was that of using a young boy as bait for attempted murder.
He looked down at the tattoo. He’d done it himself, of course. Using shades of blacks and grays, he’d carved it in his skin as a reminder of the night he was that young boy.
“Sir? Your seatbelt. Please, sir.” The stewardess placed her hand on his shoulder.
He nodded his head twice quickly. “Yes, of course.”
* * * *
Detective Nickie Savage pushed away from the splintered wooden desk in her miniscule office and placed her head between her legs. Get a grip, Savage. The heavy footsteps heading toward her messy, miniscule office helped force her head up and into reality. The six-foot-four outline of her partner walked past her drawn, plastic mini-blinds before he leaned his head through the barely-opened door.
“Head out in ten?”
She could tell the moment it registered in his eyes. She imagined she had a sheen of sweat covering pale gray skin. And yet, his eyes were a relief to meet. Smart, cunning and … concerned.
Working up a poor excuse for a smile, she ran a hand through her long waves of the honey wheat blonde hair she rarely wore up. “Make it fifteen, and I’ll have this wrapped up and ready for the Lieutenant.”
She watched as he turned his face, eyes never leaving hers. Apparently, he decided she wasn’t passing out anytime soon, because he jutted his chin up in agreement before heading back toward his office.
She turned to face her monitor, ready to give the report one more proof read before emailing it to the Lieutenant. Considering it was a lateral transfer, the Northridge New York Police Force turned out to be a gold mine. Early promotion to detective, smart, experienced people to work under and with. Well, except for Eddy Lynx. It had been over a year since their single-night roll in the hay, and he still couldn’t move on.
Shaking her shoulders like she was warming a chill, she focused on her screen. Fifteen-year-old Lacey Newcomer never made it to school that morning. Lives in the affluent northeast side of Northridge near the outskirts of town. Parents’ statements read that Mr. Newcomer last saw his daughter at o-six hundred fifteen as she ate her cereal. Mrs. Newcomer’s last contact was at o-six hundred forty-five at the bus stop when she ran out to give Lacey the remedial Algebra homework she’d left on the kitchen table. Mrs. Newcomer received a phone call from the school at o-eight hundred inquiring the reason for Lacey’s absence. Bus driver’s statement reads the girl wasn’t at her stop when he drove by. School records list six other known unexcused absences earned by Lacey, plus a string of excused. The mother insists her daughter may have skipped school a few times before but always came home in the afternoon on time. None of the teachers or classmates interviewed claimed to have noticed Lacey acting differently or that she mentioned anyone scaring her.
No matter. The Lieutenant had already started the Amber Alert. Tech was going through her landline, email and the social networking sites in her computer history. Whether he was trying to cover his ass or do the right thing, all i’s would be dotted and t’s crossed. She figured he was after the latter of the two. The Lieutenant may have been out of the field for some years now, but down in the nitty gritty, he was all cop.
She gave her shoulders one more, hard shake and sent the report with enough time to review the Reed file one more time before heading out with her partner. She trusted him. Trusted he wouldn’t put the time and effort into some dead dog left on a deck if it wasn’t important. Could be personal, she guessed. Nickie knew all about personal and would have her partner’s back as much as he always had hers.
* * * *
The rental car was hardly the type he would normally choose, but Duncan needed something quick that wouldn’t scream give me a ticket to every cop he passed on the way from Rochester to Northridge. As he drove, he instinctually looked around at the seasonal changes that had occurred in the familiar landscape since his last trip home.
How many times had he painted the ancient maples, oaks and birch trees that lined the Eighty-Nine South? The way they changed depending on the time of the year, the weather. Now, every surface was coated with a layer of snowless mist. The cloud cover gave it all a look of wet gray that weighted down everything it touched. Or did his mood personify the atmosphere? That’s what he was paid for, wasn’t it? His talent, his edge. The ability to pull out a feeling, a mood, a personality in his subjects whether landscape or portrait? The infinite array of shapes, shadows and colors helped to distract him, keeping him grounded as he made his way to the hospital.
* * * *
The private room was spacious with two gray-blue padded chairs setting under a large window. It smelled like a mixture of bleach, latex and flowers. He noted a bouquet with a large, plastic fire truck as a focal point. All one needed to do, Duncan thought, was narrowly escape an arson explosion, and you made friends for life with half the firemen in town. One chair held his only living immediate family member, his brother Andy. Their eyes met briefly as they gave each other a single nod, an acknowledgement brothers would understand. The chair closest to the hospital bed held his uncle, Nathan.
Not surprisingly, his aunt rested on top of the white sheets wearing waffle pants and a sweatshirt. The muscles in his face softened. Only Brie could wager herself out of a hospital gown.
“Come in. Let me see you.” Brie sat up from her reclined position; clearly demonstrating she was fine. “You just missed your cousins. They said to tell you they plan to crash at your home tomorrow night.”
As Duncan walked to them, Nathan lifted from his chair, took his hand, then pulled him into a hug, smacking his back twice. As he did, Duncan glanced over his uncle’s shoulder trying to read his brother’s face, his mood. Andy kept his expression blank. If that was meant to make him feel better, it had the opposite effect.
And then they left.
Gently sitting next to Brie, he took her hand. “Mother,” then, reached over and kissed her forehead next to the deep red bruise on her temple. “Where does it hurt?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine, really. A few goofy blood tests but I’m going home tonight, in just a few hours.” Her hands felt warm as she took both of his between them. “I have something to tell you about MollyAnne.”
Unintentionally, his hands tightened into fists at the sound of Melbourne’s name. He kept his breathing completely smooth. Although he knew he shouldn’t, he let his eyelids drop to half open and lifted his chin. “I’m listening.
“There’s no easy way to say this. So, I’ll just say it. She’s out.”
Slowly, he stood. All these years. How? Why? “She broke out of prison this close to the end of her sentence?”
Brie shook her head, but his mind was elsewhere by then.
“Listen to me. Duncan. Sit down, please.”
Turning, he noticed her upright in the hospital bed, with an IV inserted into the back of her hand and monitors attached to her arm and forefinger. Forcing his lungs open, he sat on the edge of the bed and gave her his complete attention. “You don’t have to tell me now. I can talk to Dad about it later.”
She smiled. It was warm and with pretty soft lines radiating from her temples, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “No. This is between us. We were there.”