He studied her, then nodded and hit the key to open his photos. Despite her words of assurance, Katie wasn’t really ready for what she saw.
The scene. The scene of Tanzler and Elena she knew so well from being a kid growing up in Key West was familiar and yet horrible.
But there was Tanzler.
And there was a woman in Elena’s place on her bed who had lived and breathed at a different time. Elena had died of tuberculosis, the woman had been murdered.
And though Katie had never known her, she knew her.
She had seen her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She had seen the huge tear form in her eye, and trail down her cheek.
Stella Martin had not been a great beauty. In death, she was like a caricature of Elena.
“Just like Tanya, and yet…” David murmured.
“What do you mean? It’s a copycat killing?”
He shook his head. “I think the same person killed Tanya and this woman,” he said. “She is not laid out as carefully as Tanya had been. There’s something rushed about the display. And Stella was older and not as beautiful as Tanya. There’s something almost garish about Stella. I think she was a handy victim. I think the killer wanted her displayed because I’m here, because Sam is here. Why else would the killer wait all of this time to kill again? Nothing else makes sense.”
“What else makes you think it’s not a copycat?” Katie asked.
David enlarged the picture, showing her the face. “Petechia,” he said. “It’s a hemorrhage in the eyes…caused by strangling. Look, you can see the bruises on the neck. But there’s more-more like the crime-scene photos in Tanya’s file. See the slight bruises…not even bruises, really. But the blue-and-gray smudges on the nose…and there, on the chin.”
Katie narrowed her eyes. She saw the little marks.
“What do you think they are?” she asked him.
“I think they’re from some form of plastic. I think the killer is putting some kind of plastic bag over their heads. They don’t see him until the last minute. He comes from behind, puts the plastic over their heads. While they’re desperately gasping for breath already, he strangles them.”
“So they really don’t know who their killer is,” Katie murmured.
“He steals their breath away so quickly, they can’t even fight,” David said thoughtfully.
Katie looked away. She didn’t want to see her ghost, the woman who had been a stripper and a prostitute but strong and gutsy in her own way, dead in a tableau.
David left the memory stick in the computer and stood, looking at his watch. He frowned. “You don’t work tonight?”
“Not tonight, though Uncle Jamie said something about doing karaoke all week next week for Fantasy Fest,” Katie told him. “I’m looking forward to my days off here.”
He was a few feet away. He nodded, and she was hoping, without being overt, that he meant to keep her with him, spend their time together, from now until then.
But that wasn’t the case.
“I have to go,” he told her.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“The strip club.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
“No, it’s-it’s a strip club.”
She offered him a dry smile. “This is Key West, if you’ve forgotten. Men and women are more than welcome together.”
He shook his head. “Katie, trust me. This is something I really need to do alone.”
“David-Stella was discovered today. People in there…”
“They might be cruel to me? Treat me like a murderer?” he asked. He shook his head. “That’s why I made a point of staying on the street today. I’m old hat, and sadly, she was a prostitute, and half the people out there assume that it’s some kind of a copycat deal.”
He walked over to her, caught her shoulders and looked into her eyes. She stared back at him, her heart beating hard, and she wondered how she could possibly feel so strongly about him when just days ago she had barely known him.
“Katie, I need to speak with Morgana. You’re the one who told me about her, remember?”
She nodded. Great, she had told him about a stripper.
“Wait for me, please?” he asked huskily.
“Sure,” she told him.
He kissed her. On the mouth. But it was a quick kiss. A goodbye-for-now kiss.
But his hands lingered on her shoulders. “Katie, I…”
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for believing me.”
“You can’t really thank me for that,” she told him. “It’s the way I feel, it’s…intuition. Whatever, it’s not something we really choose. We believe or we don’t.”
He smiled. The man had fabulous eyes. She felt tension ripping through her, and she wanted to hold on to him, beg him to stay with her.
He touched her cheek. “Still, thank you,” he said.
She didn’t grab him; she didn’t hold him, speak to him or try to stop him.
She nodded, and his lips brushed hers once again.
She walked him to the door. When he was outside, she locked the bolt.
She looked through the peephole and saw him walking down the street, toward Duval. When he disappeared, she turned and leaned against the door.
“Bartholomew?” she said.
There was no answer. Her ghost was off for the day and night, so it seemed.
She waited, listening. But there was nothing to be heard, and she felt as if she were truly alone.
With a sigh she headed into the kitchen, and turned on the small television on the counter. She switched around on the news stations, but although Stella had barely been dead for twenty-four hours, the nation had moved on. There had been a bus accident in New Hampshire, killing five, and Cleveland police believed that they had caught a spree killer who was shooting the elderly in the streets. Nanny Nice, a nurse who had killed handicapped children in a California hospital, was planning on a psychiatric defense.
Finally, the bizarre murder of a prostitute in Key West, Florida, came on the local news. Stella’s name wasn’t even mentioned at first.
But, as the story wound down, Katie felt as if a chill was settling over her. The tiny hairs at her nape seemed to be rising.
In the television screen she saw a reflection.
She turned, and Stella Martin was back, standing in her kitchen, watching the television screen. She looked at Katie, her features twisted in torment.
“Help me,” she whispered.
“Who did this to you?” Katie asked.
But Stella shook her head, tears forming in her eyes again.
She lifted her hand, beckoning to Katie.
“Come with me,” seemed to hover on the air.
The ghost of Stella Martin walked to Katie’s front door, and beckoned again.
I’m an idiot! Katie thought.
And yet she followed.
Strippers came in all sizes, shapes and varieties-even ages. Once, in college, David and a friend had done a piece on the strippers of north Florida. A lot of their other friends had ribbed them about the project, but it had earned them both superior marks for a photojournalism class.
A lot of young and very attractive women went into the work for the money. And the story was usually the same. It was good money with little effort. Prostitution and stripping were not the same, though the latter sometimes led to the first. One girl they had interviewed told them that drugs were readily available, so stripping sometimes led to drug or alcohol addiction. The addiction meant that more money needed to be earned, and stripping allowed a girl to find out who had money and who didn’t, and who would pay, what they would pay for and how much.
Some strippers remained, even when not addicted to drugs, alcohol or sex, because they liked the thrill of being sexy on a pole. To some, it was empowering.
Others did love sex.
Some just loved money.
When Morgana appeared on the floor, David at first felt sorry for her. The woman was not young, nor did she have a perfect body.
But she could move. He imagined, watching her, that as a young girl, she had wanted to be a dancer-a dancer, not a stripper. When she moved, there was something special about her.
Some of the customers in the establishment were talking and didn’t even notice her. Some of the clientele hooted and hollered.
She seemed oblivious to all of them.
And yet, when her music ended, she was back playing the game. David thought it was all by rote. There was a look of abject sadness in her eyes, even when she smiled. She was far away, even when she bent down to squeeze a bill between her breasts or accept an offering in the thong bikini she wore that was just strings.
When she walked from the stage, David rose to meet her, reaching out a hundred-dollar bill. She looked at him, and her eyes grew wider. Fear registered in them. He was afraid she was going to press the bill back into his hands and run.
“My friend Katie told me about you today,” he said quickly. “I’m so sorry. I just want to talk to you. I was hoping you could tell me more about Stella Martin.”
She hesitated. She stared at him. “The place downstairs has a quiet patio in back. But the bartender is a big, old bruiser, and he’s a good friend of mine,” she said.
He smiled. “I swear, I have no intention of hurting you,” he said gently.
“And don’t go getting the police on me!” she warned.
“No,” he said.
“Five minutes,” she told him.
She left, and as she did so, David turned to see that someone was leaving from the far back of the room.
Someone who had been sitting in the shadows, and was now just about hugging the wall and the darkness to hurry out.
There she was. Katie O’Hara. She was leaving her house behind, as she had surely done thousands of times before.
Katie O’Hara. Such a pretty thing. Sweet kid. She always had been. No doormat, she could handle a drunk out of control, speak with a cool authority that seemed to demand attention and hold her own with the best of them. Actually, she might be called beautiful now. All the rough edges of the child and the teen were gone; she was a woman. She had a magical speaking voice, and as far as Katie-oke went, ah, she was great.