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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
Sometimes Hell is Other People
Crime Scene tech Frank Brata digs deep and finds the courage to ask his colleague, Sarah, out for coffee after work. Their good time turns into a nightmare when Frank wakes up the next morning covered in blood, with no recollection of what happened, and Sarah's body floating in the tub. Determined not to go to prison for a crime he's horrified he may have committed, he scrubs the crime scene clean, and, tormented by text messages from the real killer, begins a race against the clock to solve the murder before his own co-workers, his own friends, solve it first, and find him guilty.
Billionaire Richard Tate is the toast of the town, loved by everyone but his wife. His plans for a romantic weekend with his mistress ends in disaster, waking the next morning to find her murdered, floating in the tub. After fleeing in a panic, he returns to find the hotel room spotless, and no sign of the body. An envelope found at the scene contains not the expected blackmail note, but something far more sinister.
Two murders, with the same MO, targeting both the average working man, and the richest of society, sets a rejuvenated Detective Shakespeare, and his new reluctant partner, Amber Trace, after a murderer whose motivations are a mystery, and who appears to be aided by the very people they would least expect—their own.
Tick Tock, Book #2 in the internationally bestselling Detective Shakespeare Mysteries series, picks up right where Depraved Difference left off, and asks a simple question: What would you do? What would you do if you couldn't prove your innocence, but knew you weren't capable of murder? Would you hide the very evidence that might clear you, or would you turn yourself in and trust the system to work?
From USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy comes the highly anticipated sequel to the smash hit Depraved Difference, Tick Tock. Filled with heart pounding terror and suspense, along with a healthy dose of humor, Tick Tock's twists will keep you guessing right up to the terrifying end.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
"One of the best writers today." — Johnny Olsen
"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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For my mom, the most avid reader, and mystery lover, I know. Thanks for always being there, for always caring, and for always being a mom when I needed it, and a friend when I didn't.
Today she felt pretty.
Usually she didn’t. She was about twenty pounds overweight, okay, twenty-five, but this morning’s ritual visit to the scale had shown her down two pounds, adding to the three she had already lost this week since her latest diet had begun. Five pounds was a huge psychological boost, and today she had put on an extra couple of splashes of Estée Lauder Sensuous Nude to celebrate. She always tried to keep herself presentable. Smart outfits, nice faux jewelry as accents, with a couple of real pieces she had managed to buy herself over the years—18 karat gold bangles and a gold-by-the-yard chain from the one trip she had done to Vegas. Her hair was coiffed nicely, her makeup subtle, and she always tried to have a smile on her face, which she found the most difficult part of her effort.
I just want to be given a chance.
She knew she was chubby; there was no hiding or denying that. But didn’t she deserve to be happy too? She was like any other young woman. She wanted to be loved. She wanted to love. She wanted to be happy. She had never had a boyfriend. In high school a few boys had gone on dates with her thinking she’d be an easy lay since she’d obviously be desperate, but they had left disappointed. She had been too shy to show her body, and now the opportunities had disappeared.
She had friends, and they sometimes set her up on blind dates, but they never worked out. Either they weren’t interested in the fat girl, or she would do something to sabotage things from going further. She seemed to be her own worst enemy when it came to rectifying that situation.
Do I want to be alone?
No, she didn’t. But it was Friday evening. And she was going home alone. Again.
The elevator chimed and the doors opened. Frank Brata, one of the techno geeks at the lab stepped on. He smiled at her.
He’s so cute!
“Hey, Sarah. Working late?”
She knew she blushed. She couldn’t help it. Frank was about the only good looking guy that paid any attention to her. She knew he was way out of her league, but he never seemed to judge her. “No rest for the wicked.”
He chuckled. “Tell me about it. Vinny has me working on the final cleanup from the Eldridge case.” His face clouded over, as if the memory of those events were about to overwhelm him.
“I know, none of us can believe it.”
He nodded. “Shakes is taking it really hard.”
“I can imagine.”
Suddenly Frank turned to face her. “He was such a great guy!” His voice cracked. “He was about the only guy who treated me like I was normal!”
Her chest felt tight. He thinks he’s not normal? She reached out and touched his arm. He looked down at her hand and she was about to withdraw it when he clasped his other hand over it and gave it a squeeze then let go. She wanted to leave her hand there, to feel the warmth of his touch, the warmth of his arm, but she knew she had to let go.
The bell chimed and the door opened for the lobby. They both stepped off and Frank turned to her. “Listen, there’s a place I go every Friday after work for coffee. Would you like to join me?”
She had to stop herself from yelping ‘yes’. She made a show of looking at her watch. “Yes, I suppose I’ve got time.”
Right, you’ve got until Monday 8 a.m.
Frank smiled, as if happy with her response. Well, why wouldn’t he be, he invited you, didn’t he? She knew she had to stop the negativity. Frank was a nice guy. She deserved a nice guy. And by the sounds of it, he may be just as insecure as you. “So, how’re the ribs?”
“Your ribs. From being shot.”
“Oh! Pretty good now. It’s been a couple of weeks. Still a little tender when I try to work out. I find I can’t take deep breaths without gasping. Doc says it’ll be weeks before I’m completely back to normal.”
“How’d it happen?”
“You haven’t heard? I thought everyone had by now.”
She’d heard it a dozen times. But never from him. “Just the rumor mill, and you know how accurate that is. I’d rather hear it from the source.”
Frank nodded and recounted the incident as they walked to the coffee shop that turned out to be about ten minutes away. By the time they reached there, she had made enough physical contact with him, touching his arm, patting his back, his chest, and any other part she could find an excuse to touch without it seeming creepy, to feel a connection forming. Or was it just her getting her hopes up again? She didn’t know. All she knew was she was having the best time she had had in years.
As they approached, he took her hand and held open the door. She smiled up at him and he returned the smile. A genuine, heartfelt smile.
And she melted inside.
Frank woke, his head pounding. What the hell happened last night? He tried to think back. I left the office. Where did I go? Sarah! And then he remembered. They went for coffee, were having a great time, then nothing.
But there was something.
He had the vague memory of kissing. It must have been Sarah. But why don’t I remember? He opened his eyes and sucked in a breath. He was in a bedroom, but not his, the only light coming through the partially closed drapes. Where the hell am I? He checked the bed and was alone. He looked around and found a lamp on a nightstand. He flicked it on. Definitely a chick’s place. He lifted the covers. Naked. He looked on the floor and spotted his clothes lying in a bundle. He grabbed them and headed toward what he guessed was the bathroom. He flicked the light on and squeezed his eyes shut, the sudden change blinding. He tossed his clothes on the counter, found his boxers and yanked them up. He pulled his dress shirt from under his pants and shoved one arm in then the other. Looking in the mirror to button it up, he gasped.
He was covered in blood.
His face and neck were splattered with it, his chest clean, but his shirt was stained near the neck, with drops of blood covering most of the front and shoulders. He ripped off the shirt, threw it into the bathtub and jumped back in shock.
Sarah’s blood-soaked body sat in the tub, half submerged in the dark red water, her lifeless head laying on the tap, facing the wall away from him, the finger of her right hand resting on the edge of the tub, near the wall. Near the wall that had “Frank Brata” written in blood.
He leaned over the toilet and vomited.
It was a quiet funeral. Detective Justin Shakespeare wasn’t sure what he was expecting. Obviously the customary funeral afforded a dead cop was out of the question, and he didn’t begrudge the city that. The people he expected to see were there for the most part, including that bastard Vincent Fantino, who had, he had to admit, been a little bit friendlier toward him over the past week. He was shocked to see Aynslee Kai there. I wonder if she’s here in an official capacity. He looked for a camera crew, but there was none. Huh, back to a brunette. He walked over to her.
She looked up from behind a handkerchief. “Detective Shakespeare, how are you?”
He looked at the casket containing his partner of three years. “About as good as can be expected, I guess.”
She glanced around. “Not much of a turnout.”
“Nope. He had no family except the department, and most of them just don’t know what to do, so most ‘had plans’,” replied Shakespeare with air quotes.
“I can understand that,” said Aynslee. “In fact, I don’t even know why I’m here. I feel ridiculous.”
“Sometimes you need closure. Perhaps this is it for you.”
She looked up at him then at the casket. “Yes,” she whispered. “Closure.”
The priest cleared his throat and the few in attendance turned to pay their final respects to Detective Hayden Eldridge.
Shakespeare looked around at those assembled.
Where’s the kid? And Trace?I thought they said they were going to be here?
Frank sat in a chair in the kitchen of the small apartment, shirtless, pulling at his hair. What am I going to do? Working as a tech in the NYPD, he knew what he should do. He should call it in, and let the system do its job. But the evidence against him was overwhelming, and worse, he couldn’t even say himself whether or not he was innocent. He had no memory after the coffee shop. Had they been attacked, had he been hit over the head? He reached up and checked his skull for bumps, for any evidence of a hit to the head that might explain his memory loss. Nothing. Then I must have been drugged. But if drugged, why? And by who? So they could kill Sarah and have someone to blame seemed the logical explanation.
And they’ve definitely done their job.
He looked about him, at the perfectly appointed small apartment. Everything neat, everything in its place, and everything screamed no struggle. Had the struggle occurred in the bathroom? The kitchen and bedroom were immaculate except for the bed and floor, indicating sex had most likely taken place.
Man, I finally get laid and I can’t remember it.
He smacked his forehead with his palm, disgusted at what he had just thought. Sarah’s dead, and you’re disappointed you don’t remember having sex with her? Just before you probably killed her?
And that’s when it hit him. His chest tightened, his ears filled with the rush of blood as the room narrowed around him. I killed her. My life is over. His head dropped into his hands and he sobbed. But I’m only twenty-six! He opened his eyes and watched a tear roll off his nose and onto the pristine floor below. It hit, almost as if in slow motion, the perfect circle it formed immediately marred by the splash radiating outward, as if a flower suddenly opened its petals.
What am I going to do?
He grabbed a tissue from a nearby box and blew his nose. He wiped his eyes clear with the back of his hand, and rose.
There’s no way I’m going to prison.
Shakespeare made the sign of the cross, said “Amen”, and turned to Aynslee.
“Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
“No, that’s okay, the station gave me a driver.” She smirked. “I guess they don’t trust me to drive just yet.”
“Well, it’s been over a week. I’m going back on the air Sunday.” She squared her shoulders, took one final look at the casket resting in the ground, and began to walk toward the too empty parking lot. “How are you doing?”
Shakespeare shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, I guess. I still can’t believe the first person in my career I shoot is my partner.” Vinny walked up and joined them. Shakespeare jerked a thumb at him. “I always figured if I was going to shoot someone, it would be him.”
Aynslee leaned ahead of Shakespeare and gave Vinny a slight smile, which he returned.
“I’ll give you that one, Shakes.”
Shakes. I haven’t heard that in years. It had been his nickname throughout his career until the incident five years ago where his diabetes had got the better of him, and he had lost evidence, and in the disgrace that followed Vinny had publicly shamed him, and most of the department shunned him. To this day no one knew his diabetes had driven him to seek food before his blood sugar fell too low, it was his diabetes that had caused him to not think straight and leave important evidence, a murder weapon no less, in the front seat of his car with the window down. Since then, the collegial nickname Shakes had been replaced with things far worse.
“Fat bastard,” muttered Shakespeare.
“Huh?” Aynslee looked at him, then at Vinny.
Vinny seemed to trip over his words. “Uh, yeah, well, I’ll see you back at the station, Shakes, I mean, Justin.” He scurried away, leaving Shakespeare and Aynslee alone in the parking lot.
“What was that all about?”
Shakespeare watched Vinny’s car pull away. He turned to Aynslee. “Perhaps I’ll tell you some day.” God knows I need to tell someone.
She smiled and squeezed his arm, then pointed at a man standing near a corporate limo, the door held open. “That’s my ride. Don’t be a stranger.” She pushed herself up on her tiptoes and gave Shakespeare a peck on the cheek, then strode toward the waiting car.
Shakespeare watched her climb in, her stunning beauty not lost on him. You’re old enough to be her father. He hit the fob for his car, the alarm giving a double chirp in recognition. He opened the door then fished his cellphone from his pocket.
Where the hell is Trace?
Frank had made a decision—an easy one. He wasn’t going to prison. Which meant he wasn’t going to turn himself in. But his decision had consequences. If he rid the crime scene of any evidence that may incriminate him, any evidence that may clear him and lead to the real killer would be destroyed as well. He stood up and paced back and forth, from the kitchen to the bedroom, but never the bathroom, trying to decide what to do. He knew he was in the system. Everyone who worked for the NYPD was in the system so their prints and DNA could be excluded from crime scenes they accidentally contaminated. His problem was there was no good reason for him to be on the call. When the murder was discovered, the scene would be locked down and there would be no reason for him to be there. There was a computer, but they’d just bag it, tag it, and bring it to him. He could think of no possible reason for him to gain access so his DNA, his fingerprints, could be chalked up to accidental contamination.
Could he process the scene himself?
Yes, he knew enough to do it since he had taken some basic training to be a Crime Scene Tech before returning to his original love, computers. But he didn’t have the equipment with him to dust for prints, or take samples.
He stopped and looked about. There were no signs of a struggle. The killing must have happened in the bathroom, and from what he remembered of the few moments he spent in there, in the bathtub. If he wasn’t the killer, which is an assumption he had to make otherwise he deserved anything that happened to him, the killer had gone to a lot of trouble to frame him. Gloves! Anybody who went to this amount of trouble, would surely use gloves. That meant there would be no prints from the killer. He could confidently wipe the place down to make sure his prints wouldn’t be found.
One hurdle down.
DNA. What are the sources of DNA? Blood, saliva, hair, skin. And semen. Oh my God! How do I deal with that? He pulled at his hair then let go, removing his hands slowly and looking for any he might have just yanked free. Idiot! He looked about. He had to stop spreading even more of himself about the scene. He returned to the kitchen and looked under the sink, finding a pair of rubber gloves. He slipped them on.
Okay, no more fingerprints.
He headed toward the bathroom and nearly jumped out of his skin when his phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and looked at the call display. Fantino, Vincent. It rang again, his trembling hand almost dropping it. He knew there would be no way to control his voice. It rang a third time, then went to voicemail. You’re off duty. He knew there was no reason for them to expect to reach him today; it was Saturday.
His heart suddenly thumped in his chest as he realized he had missed the one event scheduled for his entire weekend. The one event scheduled where cops would be. The one event he didn’t have a reasonable excuse for missing.
Vinny flipped his cellphone closed without leaving a message. The kid probably just couldn’t face it. He had lost enough friends over the years to know funerals were hard, especially this one. He and Eldridge had been close, he considered him one of his best friends, and now he was gone, and in such a shocking manner. Give him the weekend.
He left the funeral heading in no particular direction and soon found himself at the Detective Bureau. He parked and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, staring at nothing, his mind filled with images from that night, the night his friend had died. Hayden, why?
He pulled the keys from the ignition and headed inside. Work will help take my mind off of it. He bounded up the stairs to the fifth floor where the detectives were and strode into the squad room, for what reason, he had no idea. There was a full complement on duty, no rest for the NYPD on a weekend, but as he walked in, the entire squad room went quiet and turned to look at him.
And no one made eye contact.
Lieutenant Gene Phillips looked up from his desk behind the glass separating him from his squad, and motioned for Vinny to join him. Vinny stepped through the maze of desks and poked his head in the LT’s office. “You wanted to see me?”
Phillips beckoned him with two fingers. “Close the door.”
Vinny closed the door behind him and took a seat in front of the desk.
“So, how was it?”
Vinny shrugged his shoulders. “About what you’d expect.”
Phillips nodded. “Turnout?”
“Not many. Me, Shakes, the reporter Aynslee Kai, a few of the guys he went through the academy with, a couple of army buddies.”
“Nobody else from here?”
“Brata and Trace said they’d be there, but were no shows.”
Phillips leaned back in his chair, the ancient contraption squeaking in protest. “Frank doesn’t surprise me, he’s young. Trace was on her way but I had to call her back in. You probably passed her on your way up, she just left on a possible homicide.”
“You should’ve called me.”
Phillips shook his head. “No, not today. You needed to be there and your team can handle it themselves.”
He’s right. I needed to be there.
“Well, I’m here now. Idle hands, you know.”
Phillips frowned for a moment, then sighed. “It’s your crew, so knock yourself out. I’m sure they’ll love having their boss hanging over their shoulders on a weekend.” He smiled and Vinny chuckled. “Dispatch has the address.”
A commotion on the other side of the glass caused them both to spin in their chairs. A perp was being led in, screaming at the top of his lungs, “It ain’t no stealin’ if the keys is in the ignishun!”
Detective John “Johnny” Walker pushed the teenager into a seat and handcuffed him to the desk as Vinny and Phillips joined the gathering throng, Walker’s hand beckoning them. “Okay, gents, here’s one for the record books. Anyone got the number for Guinness?”
“What’ve you got, Detective?” asked Phillips.
“Hey, LT, get this, genius boy here”—Walker jerked his thumb at the perp—”decides he’s gonna steal a car.”
“I di’int steal it!”
“In front of a cop no less.”
“I di’int knows you wuz no cop!”
Walker smacked him on the back of the head. “Shut up! So, I’m walking out with my coffee from Eddie’s, and I see this Jag sitting there with the door open, engine lights flashing, you know, typical Jag.”
“Broken down?” offered Vinny.
“How’s I supposed tuh know?”
“Because you’re a freakin’ car thief!” Walker raised the back of his hand at the perp but didn’t strike him, instead turning back to the squad.
“So, bold as brass, this punk walks up to the car as if it were his own, climbs in, and pulls away.”
“How’d you end up with the collar?” asked Phillips
“I chased him.”
“In your car?”
“Nope, foot pursuit.”
Vinny’s eyes narrowed. “Huh?”
“Yup, car engine was so fucked it was in safety mode and would only do about five miles per hour. I just trotted up alongside, put my coffee”—he held up his cup—”on the roof, held up my badge, and after a couple of blocks he finally gave up.”
“So you’re telling me—”
“That you are looking at the first ever successful foot pursuit of a high performance sports car.”
Walker bowed several times as the squad room erupted in laughter and clapping.
“Next time I won’t steal no damned Jag!”
Walker looked at him. “Next time? You aren’t too bright, are you?”
Vinny shook his head, smiling, and headed to his office to grab his gear.
Never try to make a getaway in a Jag.
Frank, now sporting a shower cap duct taped to his head, his shoes bagged and taped to socks his pant legs were stuffed into, sprayed and wiped every surface outside of the bathroom he may have touched with a bleach solution to destroy any DNA he might miss. And he was dripping in sweat. He had his shirt collar buttoned up tight, anything that might let a stray hair free was taped, his poor man’s crime scene bunny suit crude, but effective. He knew enough from his forensics training to get the areas people didn’t think to wipe down, like door jambs, cutlery, coffee machines (inside and out), entranceway walls where one might put their hand to balance when putting on a shoe, light switches, bulbs, anything.
He cleaned like he had never cleaned before, and with each wipe, his shame grew. But he had no choice. He couldn’t go to prison. Not for something he was sure he hadn’t done. At least he was pretty sure. He wiped the door frame to the bathroom, and turned to survey the living room and kitchen with a satisfied nod. Done. Wiped down from top to bottom, the floor and every seating surface vacuumed twice, spotless. If there was any DNA left that was his, he’d be stunned.
And now for the gruesome part.
He turned to face the bathroom and stepped toward the vanity, starting at the topmost surface he may have touched, and began to work his way down.
He saw a hair.
Too long to be his, and the wrong color. Sarah was a blonde, and this was brown or black. Could it be a friend of hers? Could he take that risk, to actually destroy a real piece of evidence? He knew the killer had to have worn gloves, so his cleaning up the living area had most likely not destroyed anything. But here he was, at the scene of the crime. If anything unexpected had happened, it would be here. Here would be where the mistakes were made.
He put down the cloth and headed to the kitchen. Opening the drawers, he soon found what he was looking for—a box of Ziploc bags. He returned to the bathroom, bagged the hair, and looked about for any others, but found none. He resumed wiping down the vanity and spotted a drop of blood on the top of the faucet. One lone drop. Could it be his? No, he was sure it wasn’t. Before putting on his homemade bunny suit, he had stripped and checked himself for any cuts, anything that might have left blood evidence, and found none. This meant if he found any he could leave it as is with confidence.
But it could be Sarah’s. He looked at it. I have to know! It was the only drop. Every other spot of blood in the bathroom was in the bathtub enclosure. There appeared to be nothing else anywhere, except this one lone drop. If he took a sample, perhaps with a cotton swab, he might be able to sneak in a test of his own at the lab, and…
And prove what? He stopped. He knew it wasn’t his. It was Sarah’s or the killer’s. Leave it; it might be the only thing that leads them to the real killer.
He looked at the bag with the hair. What are you doing? He unzipped the bag and returned the hair to where he had found it. It wasn’t his. The blood drop wasn’t his. He had to give the CSU guys every chance he could to let them solve the case and find the real murderer.
Turning to the tub, he knew there was one piece of evidence he couldn’t leave.
He leaned over Sarah’s body and sprayed the wall where she had written his name, silently apologizing to her. As he scrubbed at the dried blood, he began to think about this vital connection to him. Did she think I did it? Or am I the killer? He shuddered. Or did the real killer write this? He paused. Should he leave it? Could the handwriting experts tell whose handwriting it was?
They wouldn’t need to! It’s your name! You might have been seen leaving with her! Case closed!
He sprayed some more and wiped, this time with a little more vigor.
Vinny pulled up in front of the apartment building Trace’s crime scene was supposed to be at, and was surprised to find his team milling about outside. He parked behind a squad car and climbed out. Constance “CC” Cruz, one of his senior investigators, walked up to him.
“Hey, boss, wasn’t expecting you here today.”
“Felt like keeping busy.”
She nodded, a slight smile showing she understood why. They all did. All week he knew they had been walking on eggshells, not sure what to say around him, and when he’d enter a room, conversations would suddenly stop and people would busy themselves without making eye contact. Hopefully now with the funeral over, things could start to get back to normal.
“What’ve we got? Why are you all out here?”
“Haven’t got a scene to process.”
“Tip didn’t pan out?”
“No, they just haven’t found it yet.”
“Tip was this building. No apartment was specified.”
Vinny rolled his eyes as he looked up at the towering apartment complex. “How many units?”
“Almost five hundred.”
“When did they start?”
“Not even an hour ago. Trace is in there with some uniforms going door to door. More are on the way, but it could take a while.”
Vinny sighed, then raised his voice so they could all hear. “Okay, let’s put everything away, then get in there and help find this scene.”
Frank stood back and surveyed his handiwork, not with a feeling of pride in a job well done, but with a sickness in his stomach, and an overwhelming shame at what he had just finished. He stepped toward the bathtub, held out the bottle of bleach, and poured what was left, almost half a bottle, into the water, unable to look at Sarah’s body. This was a long shot. If he did have sex with her, then his semen would almost definitely be found. This was more of a Hail Mary pass, a last ditch effort he hoped would work if he was right about yet another assumption of his. He had found no evidence of a condom anywhere, and in his inspection of himself, he had found no evidence he had had sex, with a condom or otherwise. He was sure he hadn’t had a shower, he could tell from his hair and just his general feeling of grunginess. And if he hadn’t had a shower, and hadn’t had sex, then the worst he had to worry about was saliva, which would be on the surface, and which the bleach should destroy. He looked down at Sarah, her hair and blood matted together, the rest of her head submerged under the water, and poured the last of the bleach directly on her head.
I’m so sorry.
He stepped back and out of the bathroom, turning off the light and closing the door. He put the now empty bottle of bleach in a large garbage bag, and backed himself toward the apartment door, all the while scanning the room for anything he may have missed, but found nothing. The vacuum cleaner was in a suitcase he had discovered under the bed, along with his blood stained shirt. He wore a sweater he had found on the top shelf of her closet, an oversized sweater with I Love New York emblazoned across it, a one-size fits all that fortunately for him, didn’t look too ridiculous with his casual-Friday pants.
He picked up the suitcase and garbage bag. All that remained was for him to toss the garbage bag down the garbage chute, go down the stairs a couple of floors, then take the elevator the rest of the way out. With luck he’d make it off the floor unseen, and with even greater luck, he’d make it out of the building. He stepped toward the door and spotted a baseball cap. He grabbed it and pulled it low over his eyes.
He reached for the lock when he heard three rapid knocks on the door.
“NYPD, open up!”
Detective Amber Trace knocked on the umpteenth door of the day. In fact it was the seventy-third according to her list. Luckily it was a Saturday morning, and most people were still home. This had made it easier to strike units off the list. Those who wouldn’t let them in were threatened with a possible warrant, and the door always opened. A quick search of each apartment had turned up nothing.
And none probably will.
She hated these calls. They were almost always pranks, but they couldn’t be ignored. If someone had been murdered, then they had to find out. And the tip was rather specific according to the 9-1-1 call she had listened to. A young, twenty-something female had been raped and murdered in her apartment at this address. The voice had been disguised electronically, which was why this call was taken seriously. Usually the punks pranking the system didn’t go to that much trouble.
She was on the fourth floor, working up with two uniforms in case there was trouble, and more were on the way to start from the top. They could hit the jackpot on this very door, or it could be the 484th door. And what particularly pissed her off about this call was she had missed Eldridge’s funeral. She wasn’t sure she had wanted to go until she wasn’t able to. It was closure to a horrible night she would now never get. Somebody better have died! She mentally kicked herself for that one and knocked again.
She put her ear to the door and listened for a moment. She stepped back and marked a star on the list of apartments.
“We’ll come back to this one.”
Frank hadn’t moved in inch, had barely breathed, for what felt like hours, but had only been minutes. The voice was unmistakable, he had heard it enough over the years to know it was Detective Trace. He heard her say something after the second knock, then moments later, heard more knocking, but this time further down the hall. He slowly let out a sigh of relief, and put the suitcase and garbage bag down.
He walked over to the window and opened the drapes for the first time and gasped. The view was one he had seen a thousand times before, probably ten thousand times before. It was the same view he enjoyed from his own apartment, only lower. He looked down at the street below. There was no doubt; he was in his own apartment building, just on a lower floor.
His phone vibrated in his pocket with a text message. He flipped open the display and his eyes shot open then looked out the window, searching, but finding nothing. He looked back down at the message.
LITTLE TIME ON THE CLOCK
IF YOU DO NOT LEAVE SOON
YOU WON’T SURVIVE PAST NOON
Frank grabbed the curtains and yanked them shut. I’m being watched. He held his thumb over the power button, but hesitated. I’m in my own building. I just need to get to my apartment. How hard can that be?
But who had sent him the text message? And why? It had to be the killer. And for a brief instant he felt a huge weight lift off his shoulders. I’m innocent! I must be! There’s a third person involved! It must be whoever drugged him—but that could wait. Regardless of whether or not they were in fact helping him now, he knew he needed to get to his apartment on the eighth floor, with the garbage bag and suitcase. But there was a problem. He knew they had cameras in the elevators. If he were seen getting on at this floor, how could he explain that? But he also knew they didn’t have cameras in the stairwells. From the view, he figured he was three, maybe four floors up. Could he make it up four or five flights of stairs without being seen? Would they have uniforms in the stairwells?
He took another quick peak out the window to the street below. He could see only one squad car, but two more pulled up as he looked. If they don’t have people in the stairwells now, they will soon.
The phone vibrated again.
LITTLE TIME ON THE CLOCK
DON’T WASTE YOUR CHANCE
ON ONE LAST GLANCE.
This was advice he decided to take. He ran to the door, opened it slowly and looked out. Seeing no one, he stuffed his hand in the sleeve of the sweater and cleaned the doorframe along with the door handle on either side. He grabbed the garbage bag and the suit case, then walked with purpose toward the garbage chute, which he now knew the exact location of. He opened the door to the small room and was about to shove the bag down the chute, when he thought better of it. He reached in and pulled out the empty bleach containers and other items he wouldn’t be able to flush upstairs in his own apartment, and shoved them down the chute, all the while careful to keep his hands in the sleeves to protect against fingerprints. Finished, a check out the door found the hallway still clear, and he walked quickly toward the stairwell.
He opened the door and stepped halfway in, listening for footfalls. Nothing. He stepped inside and took the stairs two at a time. Fifth floor. He raced past, grabbing the rails as needed, not worrying about leaving prints here, since he could honestly claim he occasionally took them to keep in shape. Sixth floor. He heard the door open one floor below. He couldn’t risk it; he kept racing up the steps. Seventh floor.
“Hey, you there, police! Stop!”
It was Trace. He hesitated, but for only a moment. He knew they couldn’t see him, as long as he kept away from the railing, and kept at least a double-flight of steps ahead of them. He moved to the outside edge of the stairwell and continued to run.
The urgency in Trace’s voice told him he was no longer a curiosity, but a suspect. He raced up the steps, the echo of several sets of boots below him echoing through the stairwell, and he knew they were gaining, as they could hug the inside, and didn’t have a suitcase hampering their ascent. Eighth floor. He grabbed the handle and pushed, spilling out into his hallway. He raced toward his apartment, fishing the keys out of his pocket as he did so. He skidded to a halt in front of the door, stuck the key in the lock and turned. He shoved himself against the door as the doors at the end of the hallway burst open. He thrust himself inside and closed the door behind him as quietly as he could, bolting it. He heard the pounding of footsteps down the hall halt near his door.
He raced into his bedroom, shoved the suitcase and garbage bag under his bed, stripped out of his clothes, throwing them all in the hamper, then wrapped a towel around his waist. Somebody hammered on a door, but it wasn’t his. They don’t know which apartment it was! He took a deep breath, checked himself in the mirror, and walked toward the door just as the sound of a fist hammering on it thundered through the apartment.
“NYPD, open up!”
He counted to five then opened the door.
“Detective Trace! What’re you doing here?”
Trace tried not to let her jaw drop. “Frank? What the hell are you doing here?” Frank’s face flushed a little more than it already was.
“I live here.”
Trace eyed him for a moment as she processed the information. Her eye wandered down involuntarily, taking in the young, firm body standing in front of her, the bruises from the shooting still evident, but a pale yellowish brown now. Not bad, kid. She chuckled inside. You’re old enough to be his—. Her eyes flew back up as she realized she was staring at the towel around his waist. Older sister.
“Were you just in the hall?”
He shook his head. “No, why?”
“We had a murder reported here.”
“Here”—he swept his hand inside—”in this apartment?”
A little dramatic, aren’t we kid?
“No, in this building.” She pointed at the towel. “Weren’t you supposed to be at the funeral?”
Trace raised her eyebrows and opened her hands, palms upward, trying to convey the idiocy of his question without saying it. “I got called to a possible murder?”
He blushed. “Oh, yeah, well, ummm, I guess that’s as good an excuse as any.”
He paused, as if thinking up one. Take it easy kid, nobody blames you for not going.
“I guess I just couldn’t face it, you know, the body and all, the—” His voice cracked.
The big sister in her wanted to reach out and give him a hug, but she resisted.
“Don’t worry about it, I understand.” She squared her shoulders, bringing the situation back to business. “Did you hear anybody run past here a few minutes ago, or a door open?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t say I did, but then again, it’s not the kind of thing you listen for—doors are opening and closing all the time in an apartment building.”
“Okay, Frank. You take it easy, we’ll see you Monday.”
He gave a weak smile and closed the door.
Trace turned to the two uniforms.
“Did either of you see which door the guy went into?”
The first, an Officer Richards, shook his head. “No, ma’am, can’t say as I saw anyone. Could have gone out the other stairwell door for all we know.”
“Possible, but I didn’t think he had that much of a head start.” She pointed at Richards. “You stay here; detain anyone who tries to leave.” She turned to the other. “And you come with me, we’ll continue where we left off.”
She walked toward the stairwell and pushed open the door.
There’s no way the guy got this far.
Frank leaned with his back against the door, listening to his heart hammer in his chest, and Trace talking to the two officers. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths, each one sounding so loud he feared they would be heard on the other side of the door. He heard the stairwell door open, then close.
He pushed himself off the door then looked through the peephole and nearly swallowed his heart as it leapt from his chest. One of the uniforms was standing directly in front of his door. He quickly stepped back, then tiptoed deeper into the apartment. He turned the television on to make some background noise, then went into his bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed.
He closed his eyes, and breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth, trying to calm himself. After a few minutes the pounding in his chest had eased, and he was able to focus. He moved his heels back and felt them touch the suitcase from Sarah’s apartment. He had to get rid of the evidence there, he knew, but for now, there was no way to get it out of the building. As if to reinforce the point, he heard another siren out on the street.
His phone vibrated. He searched for where he had tossed it in his mad rush to get undressed, and found it still in his pants pocket, in the hamper. He flipped it open and hit the button to read the newly arrived text message.
LITTLE TIME ON THE CLOCK
WHAT WILL YOUR POLICE FRIENDS THINK
WHEN THEY DISCOVER YOUR DRINK?
What does it mean?
Then he knew. They would retrace Sarah’s last movements, and he would be seen on the security cameras leaving with her, to go get the coffee.
Frank’s mouth filled with bile as he rushed to the bathroom.