Thursday, 12 October 2006
With military precision, he thrust his torso upward, arms rigid, palms pressed to the floor. Oblivious to the dingy carpet that reeked of cigarette smoke from the previous tenant, he feasted on the slick color brochure that lay below him. Belinda Scully, celebrated soloist on the cusp of stardom.
Gazing up at him. Enticing him with her come-hither smile. Admiring his naked hard-body.
Audiences loved her fiery passion, her magical way with the flute. He loved her, too.
Desire flamed his groin. He lowered his body and brushed her photograph with a kiss. He wanted to lick every inch of her, wanted to make her moan with ecstasy and make her beg him for more.
A final burst and his pushups were done. He sprang to his feet, bathed in sweat. Even in October the New Orleans humidity was a killer. He’d shut off the air conditioner. Paying for this shitty studio apartment was bad enough; he didn’t need sky-high electric bills to boot. His money paid for more important things: air fares and hotel rooms and concert tickets.
He toweled sweat from his face and sank onto his cheap metal futon. Large posters on the opposite wall hid cracked plaster and chipped paint: Belinda at Tanglewood, Belinda at the Hollywood Bowl, Belinda in St. Louis. The first two he had obtained after the concerts, asking nicely. The third he’d stolen from a glass display in a quick smash and grab.
The photos didn’t do her justice. She was far more beautiful in person. The insistent throb in his groin became a full-fledged erection.
“Dazzling technique and a sensuous dulcet tone,” the Times-Picayune reviewer had gushed. A rave review—justly deserved—of her performance with the Louisiana Philharmonic last weekend.
From his fourth row seat he had watched his beloved pour her emotion into the music. Thirteen years of heartache.
He knew what that was like.
At the after-party, he’d watched the LPO benefactors fawn over her, rich old men lusting after his beloved, seduced by her captivating smile, sapphire-blue eyes and the coppery hair cascading in waves to her shoulders. Watched them and hated them. Lurking behind her, aching to touch her, he had edged closer, close enough to smell her favorite perfume, Mambo.
He flexed his fingers. It had been ages since he’d touched a piano.
Years since he’d talked to his beloved.
She hadn’t responded to any of his messages. How dare she ignore him?
A sea of burning acid roiled his gut.
Tonight he would send her a different message.
“Damn it to hell!” Frank Renzi stared at his computer screen: Ink Cartridge Empty. Two hours writing reports, the last thing he needed was a dead printer. He wanted to go home. Not that anyone was waiting for him, but he could have a beer and chill out with a Clark Terry CD.
He strode to a metal supply cabinet, opened it and cursed again. No print cartridges. SOS, fourteen months post-Katrina, half the residents still gone, violent crime off the chart and NOPD short 400 officers, not to mention money for equipment.
The thugs were winning.
The sweet scent of jasmine wafted through the window bringing sounds of the night: the rumble of a delivery truck, the honk of a taxi, the clangor of Bourbon Street one block away, bars and strip joints bursting with workers who’d come to New Orleans to rebuild the city.
He returned to his gunmetal-gray desk, one of four jammed together in the center of the Eighth District homicide office. They were short a detective, and stacks of unsolved case files stood atop one desk. He cancelled the print run and yawned. It had been a back-breaking day, starting with a homicide at Iberville, a public housing complex north of the French Quarter plagued by gangbangers and drug dealers. When he and his partner arrived, a crowd encircled the victim, a young black male with two GSWs to the head, the body count climbing in an eruption of drug-related hits. A second teen had taken bullets in his legs. No wits, of course. Nobody knew nothin’.
Any kind of luck, the second kid would live to see another day.
Any day without a murder was a good day in New Orleans.
His internal phone line buzzed: the desk officer calling.
“Sorry, Frank,” said Bill Poche. “I hate to bother you this late.”
During his four years with NOPD, Franklin Sullivan Renzi had acquired a certain reputation. He wasn’t sure if this was due to his ruthless pursuit of thugs, or his expletive-laden tirade at the Deputy Chief one day when the fool tried to tell him how to do his job.
“What’s up, Bill?” Please, not another homicide. He was ready for a beer, not another corpse.
“I got a young couple here want to report a possible murder attempt.”
He heard a male voice in the background: “. . . tried to kill her.”
“Yes, sir,” Poche said, “you can tell Detective Renzi all about it.” To Frank, he said, “By the way, don’t forget that big bash tomorrow.”
Big bash. NOPD-code for VIPs. Just what he needed, nine-thirty at night. He took out an Incident Report form, set it on his desk and went to the door, playing the Who’s-the-VIP Game. No shortage of show-biz celebrities in New Orleans: John Goodman, Nick Cage, Brad and Angelina roaming around the Big Easy.
A door at the end of the hall opened and a well-dressed couple, early thirties tops, approached him. The woman was a knock-out, five-seven and willowy in her skimpy aqua dress. Great legs, except for the scrape on one knee. Her companion was six feet tall and skinny, his lips a grim line between his dark moustache and beard. Frank didn’t recognize them, made a bet with himself: Whoever speaks first is the VIP.
The woman smiled, a dazzling smile that lit up the dreary hallway.
“Belinda Scully,” she said, raising her chin like an Olympic gymnast, as if to say: Watch me! I am the best.
The name didn’t ring a bell, though she looked vaguely familiar, even features, copper-colored hair skimming her shoulders. Attractive. Amazing eyes. Great bod. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Jake Ziegler,” said her companion. No smile, a worried frown and a limp handshake.
He led them into the office and gestured at two visitor chairs beside his desk. “Looks like you scraped your knee, Ms. Scully.”
“Please, call me Belinda.” Claiming the chair nearest him, she crossed her legs and arranged her skirt. “I’m fine. This is a big fuss over nothing.”
Ziegler folded his gangly frame onto the other chair, his dark eyes smoldering. No wedding rings, but it seemed clear that Belinda wore the pants in the relationship, whatever it was.
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
“We had dinner at Trattoria Bella,” she said, gazing at him with her startlingly blue eyes. “It’s a great restaurant. Have you been there?”
“Yeah, home-cooked Italian,” he said, and realized she was staring at his chin. Fourteen hours since he’d shaved, the two-inch scar was probably a white zig-zag amidst his dark stubble.
Radiating annoyance, Ziegler fidgeted in his chair. He cleared his throat, an ugly rasp, but said nothing. Was he waiting for her permission to speak?
Frank looked at Belinda. “Did the incident happen in the restaurant?”
“No. In the parking lot.”
“We were walking to the car,” Ziegler said, agitated. “I heard a high-pitched whine and screeching tires and this car came out of nowhere—”
“And then the headlights came on—”
“Right, Belinda. And then the bastard tried to run you down!”
Frown lines formed between her eyes. “He wasn’t trying to—”
“Yes, he was! He drove straight at us.” Like a Cocker Spaniel begging for a treat, Ziegler gave him an imploring look. “Detective Renzi, if I hadn’t pushed Belinda aside, the car would have hit her!”
“Jake, it was just some kid—”
“Hold it.” He rubbed his temples to ease a budding headache. Was this a lover’s quarrel? Was Boyfriend working on his Hero merit badge? He fixed Ziegler with a hard stare. “What makes you think it was deliberate?”
Zeigler tugged his beard with long slender fingers. Every nail was bitten to the quick. “Belinda’s a public figure. Don’t you know who she is?”
He spread his hands, a weary disclaimer. “Sorry. You got me there.”
Ms. Celebrity smiled. “Not everyone is a classical music fan, Jake.”
Then he remembered the photo-spread in the Times-Picayune last week. “Oh, right. You’re the flutist that played a solo with the LPO last weekend.”
“Yes. Seven years ago the LPO gave me my first break, a solo performance with a professional orchestra, and I fell in love with the city. Four years ago I moved here from Boston.”
“Me, too,” he said, and wished he hadn’t when he saw the spark of interest in her eyes.
“Why did you move to New Orleans?”
Because my wife divorced me, and a little girl died that shouldn’t have.
“I hate shoveling snow.”
She gazed at him, somber-eyed. Her eyes were stunning, deep pools of emotions he couldn’t decipher, a hint of pain, then nothing.
“I bet it’s more complicated than that.”
The comment surprised him. Had she seen something in his face, some remnant of the anguish he’d felt when he decided to leave Boston? Maybe there was more to Belinda Scully than celebrity-hood. Maybe a real person lurked beneath her carefully groomed exterior: aqua eye-shadow, lip gloss, not a strand of coppery hair out of place.
He started to print her name on the Incident Report.
“Don’t put my name on that,” she said, her voice edged with steel.
“Use mine then,” Ziegler said. “I don’t care what she says. Someone tried to kill her.”
This was getting tedious. “Can you describe the car, Mr. Ziegler?”
“No. It happened too fast. It was dark.”
“The car was dark?”
“Yes,” Ziegler said, his voice rising in exasperation. “Dark and big. A big dark sedan. We were walking along, talking the way you do after a meal, and a car came out of nowhere and homed in on us like a . . . like a missile!”
“Did you get a look at the driver?”
“No. I was too busy looking out for Belinda.”
She shot Ziegler a nasty look, but Ziegler ignored it. “Whoever it was tried to kill her.”
For the briefest instant, he saw a flash of fear in her sapphire-blue eyes. Then her carefully-crafted mask reappeared. No window to the soul through those baby-blues now. She kept denying Ziegler’s assertion that someone had tried to kill her. Maybe she wasn’t so sure.
“What makes you think someone wants to kill Belinda Scully?”
Ziegler stared at the floor, clearly uncomfortable.
He’s hiding something and so is she. They both have secrets.
Hoping to jolly it out of them, he said, “What? You think it’s open season on flutists? Someone didn’t like her solo?”
Belinda grinned at his flip remark, as though they were co-conspirators. They weren’t. She wanted to flirt. He wanted to go home.
Ziegler’s jaw muscles bunched. “There’s more to it than that. This is an anniversary of sorts. We have dinner together every Columbus Day, the day her parents—”
“Jake,” Belinda snapped. “Detective Renzi isn’t interested in hearing my life story.”
He felt the beginning of headache build behind his eyes. Then his cellphone chimed, always trouble at this hour.
It was Kenyon Miller. “Frank! Cop down in Lakeview. Where y’at?”
Cop down. His heart hammered his chest like a drummer bashing cymbals. “At the station. Call you back when I’m on the road.”
He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and took out the leather holster that held his SIG-Sauer.
The well-dressed couple beside his desk stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Leave your contact information at the front desk, Mr. Ziegler. I’ll call you tomorrow.”