DIVA: A Demented Stalker, a Sexy Flutist, and Murder!
Beautiful and talented, Belinda Scully wants to be a star. But fame can be dangerous. Fourteen months post-Katrina, an armed ex-military man is after her. This ruthless stalker will do anything to have her: blackmail, kidnapping, even murder. When Belinda rejects him, he vows revenge and kidnaps her. Will NOPD Detective Frank Renzi find the feisty flutist in time?
The Premier Book Awards named Susan Fleet’s first thriller, ABSOLUTION, Best Mystery-Suspense-Thriller of 2009.
Here’s what some reviewers say about DIVA.
“Great character development by the author as persons of all levels of society are depicted very well. Music lovers will enjoy how thoroughly Fleet develops specific things about the music world. Best of all, there is a really good story here–if you can call a stalker good–that will keep readers on their toes. DIVA is a very suspenseful book!” — Feathered Quill Book Reviews
“Fleet subtitles her new killer thriller a novel of psychological suspense. That’s an understatement. Diva brings back homicide detective Frank Renzi and centers on a lethal stalker. The dazzling object of his sexual obsession is a talented beauty [and] her all-consuming hunger for fame goes well beyond ambition. None of which means she deserves to be raped and slaughtered. Will Renzi be able to keep that from happening? Fleet takes the answer down to the wire. — Jan Herman, author of A Talent for Trouble: the Life of Hollywood Director William Wyler
It is not the idol but the worshippers that are to be dreaded.
— William Hazlitt
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 a slick color brochure that lay below him. Belinda Scully, celebrated soloist on the cusp of stardom.
Enticing him with her come-hither smile. Gazing up at him. 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, make her moan with ecstasy, 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 music 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 on one desk. He cancelled the print run and yawned. His back-breaking day had begun with a homicide at a housing complex north of the French Quarter. Iberville was 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, his tone deferential. “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 ragged two-inch scar was probably a white zig-zag amidst his dark stubble.
Radiating annoyance, Ziegler fidgeted in his chair and cleared his throat, an unpleasant rasp, but said nothing. Was he were waiting for her permission to speak? Frank wondered. “Did the incident happen in the restaurant?”
“No. It happened in the parking lot.”
“We were walking to the car,” Ziegler said, looking 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.” Ziegler gave him an imploring look, like a Cocker Spaniel begging for a treat. “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. Years ago the LPO gave me my first break, a solo performance with a professional orchestra. I fell in love with the city. A few 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 and declared, “Whoever it was tried to kill her.”
For the briefest instant, fear flashed in her sapphire-blue eyes. Then her carefully-crafted mask reappeared. No window to the soul through those baby-blues now. She had denied 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.
He switched tactics, hoping to jolly it out of them. “What? You think it’s open season on flutists? Someone didn’t like her solo?”
Belinda grinned at his flip comment, acting 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 my life story.”
More bickering. He massaged his forehead. Headache on the way.
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.”
Tires screeching, Frank barreled into the I-10 exit at sixty miles an hour and swung north on West End Boulevard, the main drag through Lakeview. Before Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August 2005, Lakeview had been an upscale predominantly-white neighborhood. Now it was dark and deserted, no street lights, abandoned houses lining the right side of the street. During Katrina floodwaters had reached the eaves of some houses and shoved others off their foundations, scenes reporters likened to war-torn Kosovo, filming a sign on one flood-ravaged home that said: I AM HERE. I HAVE A GUN.
West End ran three miles north to Lake Pontchartrain. Thirty yards to his left Pontchartrain Boulevard ran south. In between was the neutral ground, shrouded in darkness, cleared now of the fifty-foot mountains of debris dumped there after Katrina. Only his headlights penetrated the inky darkness of the two-lane street. He swerved to avoid a boulder-sized pothole, got on his cellphone and called Miller.
“I’m on West End heading north,” he said. “Lay it out for me.”
“Off-duty cop goes in a convenience store to buy cigarettes,” Miller said. “He’s in civvies but carrying, you know, ‘cuz Lakeview’s a ghost town these days. He sees a kid holding a gun on the clerk and a female customer, goes for his piece and the kid shoots him. He makes it outside to his car and calls for backup. I called you soon’s I heard.”
“How’s the cop?”
“They took him to City Hospital, no word yet. What happened, one of the maggots used the female customer as a shield. Him and another kid piled into a black Cadillac, probably boosted, and split. The cop didn’t dare shoot ‘cuz the woman’s in the car.”
“You got a description on the scumbags?”
“Two black males, late teens, early twenties. Cop only saw one gun, but you never know. Gunslinger’s a wide-body in cargo pants and a hoodie, driver’s a skinny guy with dreads.”
“There’s trouble, two black kids take a white woman hostage.”
“No shit. Only black folks came back are the thugs. My wife and kids gotta stay in Atlanta with Tanya’s mother, and I’m bunking in a goddam FEMA trailer ‘cuz our house took seven feet of water and I can’t find a contractor to work on it.”
Miller called his family every night to quiz his son and daughter on their homework, trying to be a good dad, long distance.
“You can bunk with me anytime, Kenyon. I told you that.”
“Thanks for the invite, Frank, but I gotta stay near my house, you know? Goddam looters.”
The looters came out after dark like roaches, stripping homes of plumbing, light fixtures, copper flashing, anything they could sell.
“How’s the clerk?”
“Shook up but he’s okay. The scumbag warned him to stay put, fired a shot to scare him.”
“Okay, I’ll check the side streets over here. Keep in touch.”
He turned right onto a street lined with gutted homes and mounds of debris piled at the curb. He rolled down his window.
Putrid odors filled his nostrils. An instant flashback to Katrina: a horrible stench, raw sewage and dead bodies floating in waist-high water, a tragedy so profound that some residents hadn’t recovered. Some never would. The first week fires burned unchecked for lack of water and the manpower to fight them. Frantic parents looted Wal-Mart for diapers and baby formula. The thugs looted pharmacies and stores with guns.
A barking dog drew his attention. He trained the squad’s spotlight on a house: gaping windows without glass, a crumpled carport tilted against a fence, no signs of life. Or a dog.
He drifted into the next block. Heard faint sirens in the distance. Here there was only silence, unlike the desperate days after Katrina when the sound of helicopters, chainsaws and sirens filled the daylight hours. Nightfall brought inky darkness and a scary silence punctuated by gunfire. No one shaved or bathed for days, pissing in toilets that didn’t flush, living on MRE’s and water. And beer if they could get it.
More yelps from the dog. He swung left at the next street and put the spot on a two-story house with a basketball hoop on the garage. No lights in the FEMA trailer out front, but that didn’t mean it was vacant. After Katrina, he’d seen hard-eyed men with shotguns and attack dogs on the porches of Garden District mansions, protecting their property. The French Quarter had survived almost unscathed and Canal Street morphed into media alley. Secure and well-fed, Geraldo, Ted Koppel and Anderson Cooper had beamed their reports around the world.
A flash of movement caught his eye. He hit the brakes and studied the dark hulk of a house, letting his eyes absorb the gloom.
There it was again, shadowy movement in the darkness. He trained the spot on the left side of the house. Saw a dark form jump out of the bushes and run toward the rear of the house, arms flailing.
The metallic taste of adrenaline flooded his mouth. He sprang from the cruiser and leaped over a line of trash bags on the sidewalk. Dug out his SIG-Sauer and ran alongside the boarded-up house. Stopped at the back corner. Heard footsteps pounding the ground.
He charged into the next yard. Moonlight revealed a skinny kid in a hoodie, racing away, arms and legs pumping.
He ran faster. His lungs were on fire, his thighs burning, his forty-plus legs accustomed to a daily run, not a sprint like this. He raced around the corner of a house. The kid saw him, whirled, tripped over some sheetrock and staggered. A surge of adrenaline punched up his speed. He sprinted to the kid, grabbed his arm, put him on the ground and straddled him.
“Police! Put your hands on your head.”
The kid didn’t move, gasping for breath.
“Put your hands on your head!”
The kid slowly laced dark skinny fingers on the back of the hood.
“I’m gonna frisk you. You got anything sharp that’s gonna hurt me? A knife? Any needles?”
Silence. He swatted the kid’s head. “Answer me!”
“Ain’t got nuthin.”
He patted him down, found nothing hard and metallic. Hoping to find some ID, he searched the pockets of his jeans. No weapon, no needles, no drugs. He holstered the SIG and tugged the kid’s arm.
“On your feet, and don’t try anything or I’ll smack you.”
The kid struggled to his feet and his hood fell off, revealing close-cropped hair, a smooth coffee-milk complexion and a narrow face with a delicate nose. No telling about the eyes, the kid staring at the ground, lips clamped together. He cuffed the kid’s hands behind his back and marched him back to the cruiser. Halfway there, penned inside a wire-mesh fence, a German shepherd snarled at them. When they reached the cruiser, the kid tried to run. Frank twisted his arm. “Don’t be stupid!”
“You’re breaking my arm!” A soprano voice rising to a shriek.
He studied the long eyelashes, thinly arched brows, large doe-eyes in a too-pretty face. Realization hit him like a head-on collision.
The kid was a girl.