Fist cocked, Nickie bolted upright. Her chest rose and fell like she’d just run down a perp. Although her eyes were opened wide, everything was blurry as hell.
No. This wasn’t real. There was no Jun Zheng. No danger.
Soft, warm sheets. They lay over her legs and waist. Darting her gaze to the side, she spotted Duncan’s easels, the stool he used and her cello.
Oh no. Duncan.
Blinking rapidly in the silence, she forced her eyes to find him. He sat next to her, fully dressed, his arm lifted in a traditional high block. The scenario was becoming all too common. He didn’t speak. Wasn’t much of a talker. His eyes said enough. Pity and pain.
“Oh, Duncan.” She lifted both arms in surrender. “Why do we keep doing this?” Taking his flexed forearm, she lowered it carefully as she watched his deep chocolate eyes turn from the two Ps to the two Cs, cold and calculated.
He pushed away the hair from her sweaty forehead and tucked it behind her ear. The lines in his jaw were tight and familiar. She didn’t allow herself the luxury of touching them. Standing, he gestured to the wet bar. “There is fresh yogurt and orange juice in the fridge. The Diet Coke is in the back.”
As she took one last deep breath, her heart rate slowed to almost normal. Brilliant rays beat down from the sunlit windows in the ceiling onto the spotless bedroom floor. His briefcase stood open on his desk.
She should use her head. Yell at him and tell him to stop stocking his fridge with food only she would eat. Stop asking her to stay the night when they both knew he could end up with a black eye. Instead, she spoke from her heart. “Thanks. I’m going to hit the pool before I leave. You look ready to go. Don’t wait up.”
“You might want to skip the workout this morning.” He nodded to the grandfather clock that stood centered along the far wall. Stoic. Beautiful. Too classy for her. Was she internally describing the clock or Duncan?
“Seven-frigging-thirty?” Her heart went back to racing as she whipped the covers from her waist. The burst of cool air created goose bumps along her arms and legs and helped her escape the dream. The thought of being late for work made her forget it altogether. “What the hell? Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Because you just went to sleep four hours ago,” he said as he closed his briefcase.
The hair that nearly matched the deep color of his eyes, curled slightly over his shirt collar, the way it did when it was almost dry from his shower. He already had on his suit jacket, but it couldn’t hide his physique. Lanky and toned.
“That’s your fault,” she complained with an evil grin.
The sexy smile that spread across his face changed her mind about the workout. “I can catch some zzzs at the station.” She stood and looked around. “Where’s my—”
Duncan reached out his arm, laced his rough fingertips across her cheek, then into her hair. His subtle scent of earthy cologne reminded her of the woods mixed with a clean art canvass. This time, the rise in her heart rate was for a completely different reason. Glancing down, she realized she was butt naked. The palm of his hand was warm and rested on the curve of her hip. He pulled her in and kissed her once, twice. The taste of him made everything else disappear.
“It snowed last night,” he said. “I cleared the drive, and the plows have already made a pass on the highway. Will I see you tonight?”
She nodded helplessly as her phone rang. It was Eddy’s ringtone. Duncan’s expression turned… expressionless.
“I gotta get that.” It was silly, she knew, but she threw on underwear and her bra before answering. “Savage,” she said, setting it on speaker as she finished dressing.
“Late night, Nick? You gonna show up anytime today?”
“Shut up, asshole. What do you want?”
“We’ve got a stiff. Found in the alley behind the Noble Strip Mall by a garbage truck driver. You think you can make it? Or do you have to ask Pretty Boy permission to leave?”
She glanced at Duncan. His jaw muscles flexed and released.
“I’m on my way,” she said, then clicked off.
“He needs to be pummeled,” Duncan growled.
As she tugged on yesterday’s slacks, she tried to temper him. “You two already did that. All shows of testosterone settled and complete.”
“He crosses the line and—”
“I know, I know. I can take care of it.” She had never been good at this side of men.
* * *
Crime tape closed off both ends of the alley behind Northridge’s stuffiest strip mall. From what Nickie could tell at this end, there were four black and whites and an ambulance. She guessed that meant no possibility of a heart attack victim.
She double-parked her beloved tank and left it unlocked. “Morning, Parker,” she said to her favorite beat cop as she pulled on her leather gloves. How much snow could come down in one winter, she wondered as she watched her breath in front of her. Parker stood as crowd control and nodded to her in return. “Lighten up some, Parker. It’s a sunny day.”
“Yes, ma—Yes, Detective,” he corrected. Smart guy. He lifted the yellow tape for her. As she reached Eddy, she spotted the ME’s car. Shit. When was the last time she was so late to a crime scene that the medical examiner beat her there? Next, she noticed the odor. Sheesh. It wasn’t the unmistakable stench of a rotting corpse or even the copper scent of blood, but the smell of ripe garbage.
A garbage truck was close to the back door of an espresso shop with a dumpster turned upside down and hovering over the open compactor.
“Morning, Savage.” Eddy Lynx was a good detective and an all right friend. She may not be any good at shows of testosterone, but she knew how to keep a man from crossing the line. It wouldn’t be like him to razz her about being late in front of the other uniforms. “Garbage dude found him,” he said. “He’s the one puking in a bag.” He pointed at a man who sat on the bumper of the ambulance. Great.
Eddy finished briefing her. “He was in a body bag of all things. Garbage guy says he picks up once a week. Pretty clean place,” he said, looking around the alley.
Newer brick buildings lined the wide alley. Other than an occasional dumpster, it was spotless.
“He must not have been lying here long, or someone would have noticed. Then again, he was tucked beneath the dumpster.” Eddy shrugged a shoulder before continuing. “Doesn’t look that stiff anyway. Rickard is checking him out now.”
After stepping over to the ME, Nickie leaned by Rickard’s head as the she dipped uncomfortably close to the corpse. The stiff looked fresh enough. She had the guy’s shirt open, examining some abrasions on the chest mixed with a handful of gunshots. Sloppy shots. That, plus some random dark red circles said it wasn’t a professional hit. She wished she’d gotten to the vic before the ME but kept a respectful distance while Rickard worked.
As Nickie waited, she walked the scene. The plows hadn’t been through yet, likely were turned away by Parker or the beat cop at the other end of the alley. Her boots crunched over the fresh snow as she took note of the evenly spaced brown doors on each side of the alley. They were the back doors to the strip mall shops and eateries. Only a few had nameplates identifying what was on the other side.
Clearly, the guy wasn’t dropped from the roof, but she looked up anyway. Both buildings were single story. A body bag? That was weird. The driver was still sheet white, but at least he wasn’t puking anymore. She pulled out her ancient recorder before she approached him so she wouldn’t have to shake his hand.
“Good morning. I’m Detective Savage.” His forearms rested on his thighs, so she squatted down to his level. “I need to ask you some questions.”
She understood the guy was likely just minding his own business, out doing his crap job on an early Wednesday morning, but it still rubbed her wrong. “I know.” She did her best at sounding sympathetic. “This death stuff takes a long time.” Hopefully, he didn’t catch her sarcasm. “I’m going to record this, okay?”
She rattled off the date and brought the recorder closer to him. “Could you answer for the recorder, please? Are you giving me, Detective Nickie Savage, permission to record this conversation?”
“Thank you. Name?”
He sighed. “Terry Moore.”
“In your own words, Mr. Moore, tell me what happened.”
Straightening, he took a sip from the bottle of water that dangled from his fingers. He was a large man. Long brown hair slipped from the back of his cap. Maybe between twenty-five and thirty.
“I was emptying the dumpsters in the alley. That one—” He gestured to the one hanging upside down over his truck. “—was my fourth. As I used the lift to raise it over the back of the truck, I noticed the black bag on the ground and shut her down. I walked over and—” He lifted the back of his hand to his mouth. “I thought someone must have tossed it out and missed the dumpster. I tried to move it, and I could tell… I called 9-1-1.”
“Was there anything out of place when you were emptying the other dumpsters? You said this was your fourth.”
“Anyone in the alley? Any doors open to businesses?”
“No. Was he murdered?”
It was a fair question. “We won’t know for some time,” she lied. “Thank you for your help. We may be in touch.” She patted his shoulder and turned to check on Rickard.
“Preliminary assessment says he’s been dead between three to five hours.” No greeting or pleasantries from someone like Leslie Rickard. “His pockets were empty. Could be a robbery gone wrong, but I guess that’s up to you to decide.” It was a good thing she was the medical examiner and not the detective. If the dude was robbed, the perp wouldn’t have been carrying around a body bag for cleanup.
Rickard was all business, and since she didn’t bother to turn and look at Nickie, must have ID’d her by her boots. “He’s cold but not stiff. It’s what, twenty degrees out this morning? I’m going to say he died from the gunshots, but I’ll have something more conclusive when I get him on a table.” She finished writing in her notebook, took off her gloves, stood and stretched like she’d been squatting in the cold for an hour. Nickie guessed it was because she’d been squatting in the cold for an hour. “All yours, Detective. Good morning.”
Nickie jutted up her chin once in acknowledgement, then squatted down, taking Rickard’s spot. She judged the man to be forty to forty-five years old. Caucasian. She pulled on a pair of gloves from her holster, then started digging in pockets. “You find anything on him?” she called to Eddy.
“You’d kick my ass if I touched him.”
He lowered next to her, his proximity making her jump, his grin making her think of what Duncan said.
“Rickard didn’t find anything,” she said as she rotated the guy’s arm. Yep. Still soft. Mostly. She pulled his wrist closer. His cuff links had three Js on them. Three Js. Why was that ringing a bell? Squinting, she looked down, to the side, then up at Eddy. “Let’s take a walk.” Raising her voice, she gestured to Rickard. “Don’t move him yet. We’ll be back.”
She led Eddy to the longer end of the alley, checking around the ground and the doorways as they went. The place was cleaner than her living room.
“He kept shit from you. Now, he’s making you late for work. You were crying in my arms, because he kept shit from you. Now, it’s just… fine?”
She sighed. This was why she didn’t like working with Eddy. It was always something. She’d already explained about the photos and leads Duncan hadn’t shared with her. So Duncan had taken her aversion to hunches overboard? They had moved on from that. No need to live it over again.
She certainly wasn’t about to tell Eddy the reason she was late. Deciding less was more, she didn’t answer.
They came around the front of the strip mall. Cars were already parked in front of the classy espresso shop. The classy restaurant wasn’t open yet. Bridal gown store. Hurry past that. Classy liquor store… and Jackson & Juracek Jewelers. She smacked Eddy’s shoulder. He looked over, and she pointed at the gold-plated, wooden sign. “J & JJ.”