Red Knight strode into the barn, instantly commanding the attention of all the police officers who were standing around scratching their heads. They all knew Red, and they respected him – he’d once been one of their own after all, but his unconventional methods had rubbed the chief the wrong way. They backed off as he walked in and examined the body.
“You’ve got no business being here, Red!” the sergeant commented, “This is police business!”
“And you know I’m the best man to solve this murder. Because I recognise the handiwork of another former cop here – one you worked with yourself. But you never saw him for what he was, did you?”
The sergeant shut his mouth, looking abashed at Red’s cutting words. He shuffled off into the shadows and Red walked over to where the body was spread-eagled on the straw-covered floor of the barn. He squatted down and removed his hat.
She had been a middle-aged woman. No wedding ring, but from the look of her ring finger, that hadn’t always been the case. Divorced then, probably. She might have been attractive, but now she was a bloody mess, her head caved in in the brutal assault that had ended her life. Her clothes were ripped and torn, exposing her in the worst possible way. Red’s instinct was to look away out of respect, but of course she was uncovered in much worse ways beneath what was left of her clothes. She was vulnerable and naked in every sense now. In a way, it was a mercy she was dead. Red gently took her hand and examined the fingernails. They were ragged and bloody, like the rest of her, and he guessed she’d tried to fight back. Good for her. Forensics would need to examine the blood there – although he already knew what they’d find. The symbols carved directly into her flesh told him the story better than any machine down in the lab could. And then…
“We found this on the body,” a cop said, handing Red an object in a plastic evidence bag. He already knew what it was, and he took it without looking. An ordinary playing card. The jack of clubs.
Red only said one word: “Blackjack.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jones said through a mouth full of burger from the Jack in the Box down the road from the station. He was walking back to work, reading from the latest Red Knight novel as he went. Other pedestrians had to doge past him, but he just ignored it. He’d read a few of these books at Janice’s urging and found them pretty tedious. The writing was hokey as shit, but they cantered on at a pretty good pace and kept you reading. And it was like Hammersmith seemed to come alive when he was describing the crimes, and the women who were slaughtered in them. It was always women too. Always middle-aged, white, with middle-class lifestyles. Exactly the same as his readership. And, more importantly from Jones’s perspective, exactly the same as all the murders they thought could be linked. They followed a very precise formula.
He reached the station about the same time he finished eating and took the lift up to Homicide. He kept reading the book, ignoring the grease he was leaving on the pages. As he walked over to his desk, Colburn approached him. “Busy, Ray?”
He waved the book at her. “Researching this case.”
“Still think there’s something in this then?”
He jabbed a finger at the page. “I swear, I was at this crime scene, Gloria. The other day, outside Yucca Valley.”
“Well…not exactly. But close. In fact…” He rummaged on his desk. “The one from this book is more like this one.” He pulled out a file and passed it to the lieutenant.
She flicked open the folder and scanned the details quickly. “Another farm, this one just outside Laguna Niguel.”
“Yeah, the guys down there faxed it over to us this morning.”
“I remember this,” she said, tapping the file thoughtfully against her hand. “Last year, right?”
“Uh huh. All the same details too. The victim was a forty-seven-year-old divorcee. Check out the photo of her hand and compare it to this description here.” He passed the open book to her now – it was called ‘Poker Face’ – and she juggled it with the file as her gaze flicked from image to page and back again.
“Huh…” she said.
“I know. Crazy, isn’t it? It’s like whoever did it read the book and acted out the whole thing. I don’t know how the hell he managed to find someone who matched the description so perfectly, but we are dealing with some sort of fuckin’ psycho here after all, y’know?”
“So you are busy…” She looked over the chaos of his work station. He’d spread over to Carter’s desk, and there were files laid out, with a book on each one. “There’s more links?”
“It’s like clockwork. You find a murder, you match it with one of these damn books. Over and over. All the dates match too, more or less.”
“So the book comes out and this asshole kills someone the exact same way soon after?”
“Yeah, check it out.” He waggled his mouse, currently on a rare excursion from the junk heap and his dusty computer monitor flashed into life. There was a spreadsheet open with the dates of the murders and the dates of publication of the corresponding Red Knight novel in adjacent columns. “Clockwork, see?”
Colburn pointed. “So…on the left is the publication date?”
“No, the left is the murders.”
“But these are all earlier.”
“The dates on the left are all a few months earlier than the ones on the right.”
“Oh, I musta got them the wrong way ’round…” He went to change it.
“Hold up.” Colburn put the file down on a pile of empty food cartons and then flicked to the front of the book she was holding.
“Hey, don’t lose my place!”
“Shut up. This is the last one, right?” she asked, pointing at the screen again.
“So that number on the right is correct. And the murder,” she jabbed her finger at the file, “happened four months earlier.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
She gave him a significant look. “It makes too much sense, Ray.”
“Holy shit.” He swivelled around in his chair. “Laura, where the fuck is Hannah?”
Detective Gordon looked up from her desk. “Oh, right. She had a tire blow out on the interstate.”
“She okay?” Colburn asked.
“Yeah. We got an auto-shop on the line. They said they’d pick her up within the hour.” She frowned, remembering something. “Oh, she told you to check your voicemail, Ray.”
“My voicemail?” He looked down at his desk. The movement of detritus necessitated by having to unearth his computer had, in turn, buried his cellphone. He dug it out. The icon for an unheard voicemail winked at him from the screen. “Shit.”
“Take Beauchamp,” Colburn said, “I’ll fill Carter in when she gets back.”
“Yeah, no worries.” Jones was already heaving himself out of his chair. “Just a couple questions, right? Or do you want us to go in guns blazing here?”
“This still isn’t enough to haul him in,” she said, “but yeah, he’d better have a pretty fucking good explanation for this.”
Jones nodded and went off to find Sergeant Beauchamp.
Hammersmith tutted as he bent down to look at the flat tyre. “You should always make sure you have a spare,” he told Carter.
She folded her arms and looked down the road to see if there was any sign of the recovery vehicle yet. The heat blurred the surface of the road where it met the horizon, and all she saw was an endless procession of cars emerging from the reflective haze. No sign of any help yet. It could still be an hour away for all she knew.
Hammersmith was looking up at her. He’d slipped his designer shades off and hooked them into his collar, like she always did. “You should always have a spare.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You can have mine if you want.”
“Do you know how to change a tyre?”
“Sure. Don’t you?”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Normally Ray’s around.”
“Now I find that odd,” Hammersmith said as he straightened and a car whooshed by so fast it disturbed his perfectly-coiffed haircut.
“A career woman like you. Determined, feisty. I didn’t think you’d be afraid of getting your hands dirty.”
Carter felt herself bristle at the way he was describing her, like he’d already seen her inside out, but she refused to rise to it. “I can’t take your spare. What if you get a puncture?” It was an excuse, and he knew it.
“It’s fine. You’re in trouble.”
“I told you, a recovery truck’s on the way.”
“It’s no problem…”
“Not for you,” she said, working hard to keep the irritation out of her voice, “but you’re involved in an ongoing police investigation, Mr Hammersmith. I can’t accept your help. In fact, it would probably be best if you went on with your business.”
“I have nowhere I need to be. I might as well keep you company at least. And I wasn’t aware I was ‘involved’ in anything.”
“Tangentially,” she clarified. “But still. There’s protocol.”
“Isn’t it protocol to visit witnesses with your partner?”
She tilted her head. “How did you know I was visiting a witness?”
“I meant last night. When you came to my apartment?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a disarming grin. “I won’t tell anyone.”
She felt like she was going to be sick. She racked her brains trying to think of a way she could force him to drive away, but short of pulling out her gun, nothing came to mind. She was a cop. She was supposed to be able to tell people what to do, but if she got tough with Hammersmith now, he’d know she was getting suspicious of him. So there was nothing she could do but tolerate his company and hope none of the motorists driving by recognised him.
“You know,” Hammersmith went on as they left her car and walked back over to the dusty verge, “I wanted to thank you.”
“For inspiring me. I was having a bad month or two. I’ve been working on my latest novel, and I thought I had everything figured out but…I don’t know…something just wasn’t gelling, you know?”
“Right.” Carter sat down on the barrier at the side of the road while Hammersmith remained standing. He was between her and the sun and his shadow provided a bit more relief from the fierce glare, but it did turn him into a dark, featureless silhouette looming over her. He moved his hands as he talked.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it writers’ block, but for some reason the old formula was starting to feel a little…I don’t know…trite, maybe.”
“You don’t say…”
He chuckled. She couldn’t see his face, but she imagined his smirk. “I needed something to freshen things up, and it’s amazing where ideas can come from. I always like to write from real life and when you walked into mine, it really gave me a brainwave.”
“Really?” Carter kept her tone as flat as possible. Maybe if she didn’t encourage him, he’d just shut up. It didn’t seem to be working.
“I realised I needed a new character. A hotshot young female detective to help Red with his case.”
“So Ayesha Domino was born.”
Carter looked up at Hammersmith. He shifted his posture slightly so the light hit the side of his face and she could see his broad smile. She turned the name he’d just said over in her head. ‘Domino’ she understood, given his propensity for certain kinds of imagery. But, “Ayesha?” she asked.
“Well, I had to show the readers that she was…uh…what’s the,” airquotes, “‘politically correct’ term for…?” He gestured at her.
“Black. African-American,” she said in a surprisingly even voice.
“Right, right. A woman of colour, you know?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, “weirdly, I do know.” She shook her head. “Don’t all the women in your novels die?”
“Well….” he seemed to think about it. “I suppose they do.” He laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those feminists who think my books are,” airquotes again, “‘misogynistic’.”
“It was just an observation. Do you think it’s strange that your readers identify so strongly with characters who inevitably get brutally killed?” She hadn’t meant to say anything like that, but he’d just pushed her a little too far now.
“I suppose, in a way. Who understands the female mind though?”
“Other women? Most men? We aren’t a different species, you know.”
“You see what I’m saying though.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It’s going to be interesting though. My readership is mostly middle-class, so having a character that’s so different from themselves might cause problems with their suspension of disbelief.”
“By middle-class, do you mean ‘Caucasian’?”
“Yes,” he answered, apparently not noticing the frosty tone in her voice.
“Why does it matter what colour she is anyway?”
He looked at her and gave her the same smile someone might give to a precocious child who’d reached the limits of their understanding of the adult world. “Readers like to have something to latch onto. I make sure to write detailed descriptions of all my characters.”
“So just say she’s black?”
“No, you can’t just come out and say these things. ‘Show don’t tell’, that’s the writer’s maxim. I have to give subtle hints, not just dump all the information like that. There’s an art to it. But I have a very firm idea in my head about what sort of person Miss Domino is.”
“Because you based her on me, right?”
“Well, she’s really a sort of…collage…of a few people. But yes, you were certainly an inspiration for her.”
Carter folded her arms and looked back down the road. The traffic was still hurtling past. “You’re welcome, I guess.” The idea that this man thought he knew her well enough to write a character in his book based on her was profoundly unpleasant. “Do you always base the characters in your books on people you know?” she asked, turning back to him.
“What about the victims? Like I was saying, they do kinda resemble your readership. I guess you meet a lot of middle-aged, single women, huh?”
“A few,” he said with a faint smile.
“So, do you use them?”
He gave her a sharp look. “Use them? I’m not sure I follow…”
“As characters. Do you meet a fan and think, ‘hey, she’s my next corpse’.”
“And what about Red Knight? He based on anyone you know?”
Hammersmith put his hands in his pockets. He was wearing a pale beige suit with an open-collared shirt. He looked like what he was: rich, arrogant, white. “I suppose there is an element of the author avatar in him.”
“He’s me, or certainly one side of me. They say you should write what you know.”
“And do you know a lot about being a private dick?”
“I think I told you last time we met that I’m a student of criminology and human psychology. There’s really not much to it. In fact…”
“What about Martin Blackjack?” she interrupted.
“…I was think I might be of some…what?”
“Who’s Blackjack? Who did you base him on?”
“Not everyone in my novels is based on a real person.”
“I thought you said you write what you knew.”
“Rules are made to be broken.” He walked towards her and then sat down next to her on the crash barrier. She found herself instinctively wanting to pull away from him. She was overcome by an odd sense of dread at the idea of him reaching over and touching her. She had a feeling that his hands would be clammy, smooth and cold for some reason. “As I was trying to say, I think I can be of some help to you.”
“Well, no offence, but you seem to be flailing around a little with this investigation of yours. I don’t know what your colleagues back at the station are up to, but it seems odd that you’re off driving to Anaheim, getting a flat tyre when there might be a serial killer out there.”
“How did you know I’d been to Anaheim?”
“Lucky guess. I may not have all your credentials, Hannah, but I do know my own work inside out. I think I can give you some important insights into this case. You have a valuable resource here, and you shouldn’t be scared to use it.” He put his hand on her arm, just lightly. She’d taken her jacket off and had just a short-sleeved t-shirt on so she felt his skin touch hers, felt the exact smooth moistness she’d been expecting, the sense of soft hands washed often, faintly scented and somehow antiseptic. The sensation made her jump up to her feet and, despite the heat, a shudder ran through her. “Are you all right?” Hammersmith asked.
“I’m fine. I think you should go now. You probably have to get on with your novel, right?”
He hadn’t stood up yet. “Do I make you nervous, detective?”
“I’m a cop. No one makes me nervous.” She rubbed her arms instinctively. She felt very cold all of a sudden. The sky was clear, but it felt like the sun had gone behind a cloud.
“Now, now. No need to hide your feelings from me, Hannah.”
“It’s Detective Carter, Mr Hammersmith. Oh hey, here’s the recovery vehicle…” A large flatbed truck emblazoned with a logo she didn’t recognise had just crested the rise and was moving towards them. It indicated to pull in as it approached. “That’s my ride,” she said pointedly to Hammersmith.
“Maybe I should wait. You’re out here by yourself – I’m not sure I like the idea of you being alone with some mechanic you don’t know. He might take advantage of you.”
“If he tried it, I’d shoot his fuckin’ dick off.” She affected a bright smile. “It was nice seeing you again, Mr Hammersmith. If we feel we need further help from you with our enquiries, I’m sure my department will be in touch.”
“Yes indeed.” He finally stood up and walked behind her to his car. She had to fight every nerve ending in her body to keep from turning to watch him. Something made her terrified to turn her back on him, but she wouldn’t let him see the weakness. He passed very close to her. So close that, for a second, she thought he’d brushed against her. Something caused a strand of her hair to move gently against her neck, and she realised with horror that it was his breath. She was about to whirl around and confront him, but he was already moving to his car. He paused at the door, his hand on the handle, and looked at the driver of the truck before giving the other man a slight nod. Something seemed to have passed between them. It was as if Hammersmith was handing over custodianship of her to the mechanic. She shuddered in revulsion again and strode towards the truck. Hammersmith was still lingering, but she refused to notice him. Refused to turn and wave. She had nothing to thank him for. Finally, she heard his door slam and his engine switch on. With a crunch of tyres, he was gone. But he’d be back. She was completely certain of it.
“I’m guessing he ain’t in,” Beauchamp said, nodding at the empty parking bay outside Hammersmith’s apartment complex. They were all numbered, so they knew which one was his.
“Looks like it,” Jones agreed with a grunt. They’d parked the car over the road and were now on foot, circling the landscaped area around the building to get to the awning that marked the entrance. “Nice place,” he observed.
“Yeah. Pool back there and everything.” Beauchamp pointed through the glass atrium of the lobby to where a corner of aquamarine was visible. It was a beautiful hot sunny day, and Jones would have given anything to be anywhere but LA right then. The heat and smog of the city seemed to cling to him like a second skin, and he was conscious of the spreading patches of sweat on his shirt.
He wheezed his way to the door. “Wanna try the bell?”
“Might as well.”
They tried a couple of times, buzzing the right number, but nothing happened. It was obvious they’d missed him. “Shit,” Jones said under his breath. “I hope Hannah’s having more luck.”
“Not if she blew a tyre she ain’t.”
“She’ll be okay.” They turned from the door and nearly ran into a woman coming the other way down the path. She was attractive in a manufactured, LA kind of way, with a handful of shopping bags. She brushed past them with a slight smile for the tall, powerfully-built Beauchamp who gave her an appreciative glance as she went by. “Excuse me, miss?” he suddenly asked.
“Yes?” she said, turning around and moving her shades up into her peroxide-blonde hair. She was wearing tightly-fitted jogging pants and a matching zip-up sweater. Jones thought she didn’t look put out by the heat in the slightest, but then she was probably less than a third of his weight.
“Do you know the gentleman who lives in apartment seventeen?”
“You mean Calvin Hammersmith? The writer?”
“That would be him, ma’am,” Beauchamp said. “We were hoping to talk to him.”
She looked from him to Jones and back again. “Are you friends of his?”
“No, ma’am.” Beauchamp held up his badge. “We’re actually police. Do you know where Mr Hammersmith might be?”
“Well, I don’t know him that well,” she said. There was a look of slight concern in his eyes. “He’s always going away though. He has book tours and things like that.”
“We have reason to believe he’s in town. You didn’t see him leave?”
“I don’t think so…” She looked at his space. “His car was there this morning though when I went to the gym.”
“When was that, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Eight am? And…” she thought again. “It was still there when I got back at ten, I think.”
“Thank you, ma’am, you’ve been very helpful.” Beauchamp gave her another smile, and she returned it shyly.
“Is Calvin in any trouble? Should I be worried?”
“Not at all. Taxes. You know what these guys are like.”
She laughed and held the sergeant’s gaze for a little longer than was necessary then turned back to the door. As they walked back to the car, Beauchamp looked over his shoulder and gave her a small wave. She was obviously lingering in the atrium, watching him go. Jones shook his head. “You’re disgusting.”
“Was that the best idea, telling her we were cops?”
“She’d never have talked otherwise. Besides, we found something out.”
“That he left after ten? So what?”
“Nah,” Beauchamp said. They checked he traffic and then walked across the road. “You saw that girl.”
“Yeah, I saw her…”
“She said she barely knows Hammersmith.”
“So, if a girl like that lived in your apartment block, would you barely know her? C’mon, he’s filthy rich and single. You’re saying he’s never passed the time of day in the hall with her?”
They were at the car and Jones leant on the roof before pulling away with a wince. It was like touching a hotplate. “What does that matter?”
“It means he isn’t interested in girls.”
“Maybe she’s not his type.”
“She’s everyone’s type, Ray.”
Jones shook his head. “Nah, Hannah said he creeped all over her. She said she felt like she had to take a shower after they talked last.”
“Then he was playing her.”
“Why would he do that?”
Beauchamp pointed back to the apartment block with his keys. “All I know is, there ain’t no way in hell a girl with an ass like that doesn’t know the wealthy famous guy living down the hall. Not in this life. But for some reason he never goes over to borrow a cup of sugar? C’mon, man.”
“She could be married.”
“No ring,” Beauchamp said, holding up his finger.
“You noticed that?”
“That’s a thing guys like me notice about girls like that.”
“You’re a fuckin’ pervert.”
“I know which side my bread’s buttered, man. Here’s the question though: which side is Hammersmith’s?”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, if he ain’t interested in her, he ain’t interested in Hannah. At least, not like that.”
“He might just prefer…you know…his coffee without cream.”
Beauchamp gave him a flat look. “You serious?”
“She said he was a total creep.”
“And I’m saying, he’s got no need to go sniffing around lady cops when he’s got a chick like that on tap. And you can say black you know – I ain’t gonna be offended.”
“Like I give a shit what you think. Unlock the fuckin’ car.” He banged on the roof and winced at the heat again.
They got in and Beauchamp adjusted the mirror slightly. “One thing’s for sure, I’m gonna feel a lot better when Carter’s back at the station.”
“Me too. What now? You wanna try tracking down Hammersmith?”
“I dunno. Call Hannah. See what she found out in Anaheim.”
“Right.” Jones took out his cell phone and then remembered the voicemail. “Oh hey, I probably oughta listen to this…”
Ellie opened her door and was stunned to find Hammersmith leaning nonchalantly in the hall. He smiled at her. “Calvin! What are you doing here?”
“I just had to see you.”
“Really?” She blushed. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes. Better than okay, in fact.” He walked into the apartment as she stepped aside. “I feel…energised…”
“You know I’ve been struggling with my book.”
“You said at dinner last night, yes.”
“Well I’ve had a breakthrough.”
Ellie was conscious she wasn’t really dressed for receiving guests, least of all one like this. The date had been incredible, and she was secretly quite disappointed it had only ended with a chaste kiss at the door, but she knew Calvin was a gentleman. That was one of the things she found so attractive about him. “Would you like a drink? Some coffee or…?”
“Coffee would be great. Black. Two sugars.”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.” She went into the kitchen, adjusting her old t-shirt self-consciously. Was there a way to politely excuse herself and change into something a bit better? She barely even had any make up on. Still, last time he’d arrived she’d been virtually undressed. He had an odd way of catching her when she was vulnerable. In a way it was quite thrilling. Sometimes it was good to feel that thrill of danger. That was one of the things she liked about his books: that sense of menace around the corner, the quasi-erotic thrill of dangerous, dashing men with their dangerous, dashing lives.
“Is Sam here?” Hammersmith called from the living room.
“No,” she said, smiling to herself as she filled the coffee pot, “he’s got school.”
“Of course.” What was that in his voice? Satisfaction? Excitement?
She decided to just load the coffee stuff onto a tray and go back in. “We have the place to ourselves,” she told him as she came back in. “I thought this would be easier,” she explained, putting the tray down on the table.
Hammersmith just stared at her and she realised he was just waiting for her to make the coffee for him. Something about that thrilled her too. He just stood there watching her wait on him, completely in control. “Here you go, Mr Hammersmith,” she said as she handed him the coffee, even going so far as to bob a mock curtsey at him.
“Thank you.” He didn’t laugh, and that made it even more exciting.
“How is Sam?” Hammersmith asked.
“Sam? Uh…he’s fine. Why?”
“Oh, I just thought we hit it off. I wondered if he’d said anything.”
“Well…he said you showed him some card tricks…?”
“Was that all?”
“I…I think so…”
“Good.” He sipped his coffee. “This is nice, thank you, Ellie.”
“So,” she crossed to the sofa and patted the spot next to her. Hammersmith didn’t move. He just looked around the room. She was conscious the place wasn’t exactly spick and span. “You mentioned things were going well with your book?”
“Oh, yes. Very well.” He favoured her with another half-smile that set butterflies dancing in her stomach. “I think I’ve even thought of an ending.”
“Oh goodness! That’s great!”
“I suppose you want to know?”
“Oh…” She thought about it. As much as she loved reading the Red Knight books and wanted to enjoy them properly, having this rare insight into the process of one actually coming together was incredibly exciting. All her girlfriends would be so jealous. “Well,” she said, “don’t spoil it for me too much. But…yes, you can tell me if you like. If you think it would help your process, of course.”
“Yes, my process is very important,” Hammersmith said. “Very important. I have to follow a certain formula.”
“And I was going to deviate from it quite a lot this time. It seemed like such a good idea but, in the end, it all has to come back to the same thing.”
“That’s right.” There was a flash of something in his eyes. Ellie might have been wrong, but she thought it must be desire. She licked her lips nervously. “Whatever happens,” he continued, “whoever comes into my story unexpectedly…in the end, there has to be a murder, or it’s not really a Red Knight mystery, is it?”