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"Born of the Blade" - Part Five

We had just stepped out of the motel entrance, the glass doors shushing close behind us, when the black ChrysFord SUV pulled in under the covered portico and came to a stop at the curb five meters away, passenger side facing us. The passenger window rolled down and Chen of the Jade Dragon Society regarded us behind a pair of slim mirrorshades.
   
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Mouse about to go for her Bowies.
   
I grabbed her arm.
   
"Don't," I said.
   
She growled.
   
"They're trying to force our hand, remember?"
   
"Force it right up their--"
   
"Mouse."
   
Another growl. "Fine."
   
Turned to Chen.
   
He continued looking at us, face expressionless.
   
I gave him a small nod and started walking toward the Royale.
   
The SUV crept forward to intercept me.
   
I stopped at the curb.
   
The SUV stopped.
   
I started toward the Royale.
   
The SUV crept forward, paralleling me along the curb.
   
I stopped.
   
It stopped.
   
I looked at Chen, then stepped off the curb in front of the SUV.
   
Chen stared at me, his brow creased.
   
The SUV's driver gaped at me, turned to Chen, and said something I couldn't hear.
   
Chen said nothing but continued to stare at me, the crease in his brow deepening.
   
The driver said something again, urgent this time.
   
Chen scowled and replied.
   
The SUV backed out from beneath the portico, backed up to the far curb, and drove out of the lot.
   
Heard Mouse come up beside me.
   
"That could've ended badly," she said.
   
"Chest puffing," I said.
   
"For now."
   
"For now."
   
"And when it isn't anymore?"
   
I looked her in the eye. "Then we go to war."
   
She gave me a feral grin.


*   *   *

We were halfway to Val's when the thought struck.
   
"We don't know shit about serial killers," I said.
   
"I've seen vids," said Mouse.
   
"Those are vids, though," I said. "I don't think they all wear human skin masks."
   
"That chainsaw one was supposed to have happened."
   
"That also had the ancient book that supposedly summoned demons."
   
"Wrong chainsaw movie."
   
"No vid info," I said. "We need an expert."
   
"We could see if Specs..." She stopped and made a strangled noise in her throat.
   
I felt the knot in my gut again. "I know," I said.
   
We drove the next few blocks in silence.
   
As we crossed Midway and Sheffield heading north I said, "When we get to Val's I'll see if Revell knows anybody."


*   *   *
   
Revell said, "There is expert in Bay City."
   
"Who?" I said.
   
"Elaine McCarthy. She is professor at BCU. Criminology. She was in news several years ago. Helped NorFed IB catch serial killer."
   
"Thanks, Rev. We'll try her next." I hung up and turned back to Val and Mouse.
   
We were again seated next to Val's workstation watching the three display screens.
   
"Ready when you are," said Val.
   
I told her about the footage of Brittany. A short burst of typing soon displayed the correct feed and we watched as Brittany collapsed and was dragged away out of the frame.
   
"There's supposed to be another camera on that side of the building."
   
"I've got it," said Val, fingers flying across the keyboard.
   
A display box materialized on the center screen and the footage began to play. The camera now looked back toward the opposite end of the property, part of the parking lot to the left side of the frame, the building wall along the right side. Val had keyed up the correct timecode and we watched Brittany step through the side entrance, the door closing behind her, finish talking on her phone, lower it, and begin to dial.
   
Then the figure stepped around the far corner of the building, keeping close to the wall, crept forward quickly between a low bush and the building, and swatted Brittany in the back of the head with a club-like object.
   
"Freeze it," I said.
   
The footage stopped.
   
The image now depicted Brittany lying prone and the figure crouched just behind her.
   
Val keyed commands and another still image popped up next to the first. Reverse angle from the first camera showing Brittany on the ground.
   
"Right here," said Val, pointing to the lower edge of the frame in the second still image. "They're standing just at the edge of the camera's frame."
   
"But you can see them here," said Mouse, pointing at the first still image.
   
"Can you get closer?" I said. "See if we can ID her attacker?"
   
"Let's see," said Val, keying more commands.
   
The image popped up in a display box on the right-side screen, then shifted and zoomed on the figure. Val continued typing commands and tiny menu boxes flickered in and out of view. Then the image sharpened to a head and shoulders view of the figure. They were wearing a watch cap and had tied a bandanna around their face so that only the eyes were visible.
   
"Crap and a half," said Mouse.
   
"Can't do a match with that," said Val.
   
I looked at the image for a moment then back to the frozen feed. "Replay that far camera," I said.
   
Val keyed in commands.
   
The footage replayed. I studied it.
   
"You seeing something?" said Mouse.
   
"Maybe," I said. "Let's look at the other feeds."
   
Val keyed up the dates and times for Eve. Then for Sheena.
   
Each time was roughly the same. Out the side entrance, in the middle of a phone call, then struck from behind.
   
Realization hit.
   
"Freeze it," I said.
   
The footage of Eve's attack stopped in mid-stream.
   
"These were planned," I said. "Had to be. The girls came out of the same door every time. The figure comes up behind them and knocks them out. Same corner of the building. They knew to cover up to prevent facial recognition and they stayed hidden enough when they attacked."
   
"But they still got caught," said Mouse. "They're all over the feed."
   
"But not enough to identify them."
   
"Fucking hell."
   
I said to Val, "Is there anything you can do to the image to get a better look?"
   
"Unless they take off that bandanna or the watch cap, I got nothing."
   
"Can you go by eye shape?"
   
"Not enough info."
   
"Damn," I said, looking at the frozen feed.
   
Then a thought struck.
   
"Keep it playing," I said.
   
"Sure," said Val, keying commands.
   
The footage picked up again. Eve crumpled to the ground, prone. The figure then crouched near Eve's legs, dragged her backward a short distance, then picked her up under the armpits and dragged her the rest of the way toward the left-side of the camera frame, toward the parking lot. A moment later, they disappeared from view and we were watching nothing on camera but scenery.
   
"Keep it running," I said.
   
We waited and watched.
   
Ten minutes later, the front corner of a car swung out from a parking slot outside the frame, traverse a small section of camera before vanishing from view
   
The footage froze.
   
"Dammit," said Val. "That could be any car."
   
"Did you see tags?" I said.
   
"No," said Val.
   
"Parking lot cameras?" I said.
   
"No," said Val. Suddenly she straightened in her chair. "Wait a minute." She turned toward us. "Street cams."
   
"You can follow," said Mouse.
   
"Damn right," said Val. "It might take a little bit."
   
"How long?"
   
"Not long to pull the feed," she said. "But time to sort through it. Maybe half an hour or more. Provided I get left alone."
   
"You expect trouble?"
   
"More annoyance than real trouble," said Val. "Traffic control tries to be proactive."
   
"You can handle that," I said. "We're going to find out about serial killers. Quick infodump on Elaine McCarthy at BCU."


(to be continued...)


"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 6
 

"Born of the Blade" - Part Four

The Roadside Motor Inn, three stories of unassuming beige with a Spanish tile roof, occupied most of Center between 47th and 48th immediately south of Civic Park. A parking lot edged with tired-looking shrubbery flanked its north and west side and a cover portico perched on two rough-edged brick columns completed the look. Its only neighbor was on the south end of the block, a pizzeria with a colorful awning over the front entrance.
   
We told the twentysomething blond desk clerk that we worked for Miss Renée and needed to talk to someone in charge. She let out a little gasp, mumbled something about the assistant manager, and scurried to a nearby office to summon him.
   
The motel's assistant manager, tall and slender with thick brown hair and a pencil-thin mustache, dressed in a tailored gray vest over a white shirt and red tie, emerged from the office. He stood in the middle of the foyer, and regarded us with one arched, well-manicured eyebrow, hands on his hips, his body slightly tensed.
   
Given how we were dressed, I wasn't surprised at his reaction.

Thankfully, Mouse had left her back scabbard in the Royale.
   
But he still probably didn't expect the sight of us.
   
"Miss Renée," he said with a slight lisp, "is one of our valued clients."
   
"We have a matter that needs attention," I said. "Is there somewhere private we can go."
   
"I'll need verification, of course," he said, the eyebrow still arched.
   
"You can call her," I said.
   
"I will." He signaled to the blond desk clerk. She handed him a headset and mic. After a moment he said, "Roadside Motor Inn for Miss Renée. Yes, I'll hold." He gave us a humorless smile.
   
I returned it.
   
"Miss Renée," he said into the headset mic, then lowered his voice and turned away from us. He spoke in hushed tones, nodded, a few times, spoke again, nodded again. This time his shoulders relaxed and he turned back to us. He took the headset off and handed it back to the desk clerk.
   
"Verified?" I said.
   
He gave a short nod. "This way," he said and ushered us into the nearby office he had emerged from.
   
It was small,with barely space for a desk, terminal, and two chairs, one on either side of the desk. With just the furniture and the assistant manager it looked cramped. With the three of us, it felt claustrophobic.
   
"My name is Lawson," the assistant manager said as he took his seat behind the desk and motioned for us to sit.
   
I shook my head. So did Mouse.
   
He shrugged and settled into his chair.
   
"Kat and Mouse, is it?" he said.
   
"Kat," I said, indicating myself then gestured to Mouse. "My partner, Mouse."
   
His eyebrows popped up and down. "How charming. Now, what is this matter that requires attention?"
   
"Miss Renée tells us she has reserved rooms here."
   
"She does," Lawson said. "Standing reservations. Rooms 111, 113, 223, and 225."
   
"And you have records of their use?"
   
"We do."
   
"How extensive?"
   
"If you mean do we have the identities of the persons who make use of those room, then no. We know when her girls arrive to use them. But we don't record who they arrive with."
   
I pulled my phone from my jacket, found the images of the girls, and showed them to Lawson.
   
He nodded. "Yes, I'm very familiar with those three. Brittany, Eve, and Sheena." He grinned. "They're recurring guests, you might say." His grin suddenly grew uneasy. "Except I haven't seen Brittany and Eve in a while. I hope they didn't go elsewhere."
   
"Do you remember when you saw either of them last?"
   
Lawson leaned back in his chair, one elbow on the armrest, smoothing his mustache as he thought. "Brittany was here a week ago. The 26th or 27th. And Eve I saw on the 2nd. But not since then."
   
"And Sheena?"
   
"Last night," said Lawson.
   
"If the rooms are a standing reservation, how do you know when they get used?"
   
"Oh, the girls check in for their initial use. The keycard is good for twenty-four hour access. After that it needs to get re-coded." He frowned. "We had noticed that after their visits, Brittany and Eve never returned their keycards. We assumed an oversight on their part and the manager, Mr. Denton, had notified Miss Renée so I thought it had all been taken care of. I mean, he never mentioned anything more about it after that." His eyes suddenly went wide and he put a hand to his chest and sucked in air. "Oh my god. Did something happen to them? To the girls?"
   
"That's what we're here to look into," I said.
   
"Oh goodness," Lawson said, looking pale. "Those poor dears."
   
"Is there anyone on your staff who might have an issue with the girls bringing their business here?"
   
"Not that I know of. We've had a contract with Miss Renée for the last five years. I've never heard any staff member complain."
   
"Would you know?" said Mouse.
   
Lawson's smiled. "One of our custodial staff has her ear on all the work gossip and I encourage that in her. She likes to keep me informed. In return, I treat her well. Extra time off. Longer meal breaks. That sort of thing."
   
"And she's never heard complaints about Miss Renée's girls?"
   
Lawson shook his head.
   
"Does the motel have security cameras?"
   
"We do," he said. "Inside and outside."
   
"Do you monitor the feeds?"
   
He gave a sheepish grin. "I'm afraid not. The most we do is shift the footage to data storage whenever the system tells us."
   
"Where's your storage?"
   
"Data room. South end of the hotel."
   
"Can you access a specific date of footage?"
   
"I assume so. I've never tried it."
   
"You're about to," I said.


*   *   *

The data room was the size of the Red Dog's back office and at least ten degrees cooler than the hallway outside. Five rows of floor-to-ceiling equipment racks dominated the space packed with gunmetal gray boxes that blinked red and green and crisscrossed with lengths of thickly bundled cables. A workstation with a terminal and twin screens sat near the entrance.
   
Lawson closed the door behind us then sat down at the workstation and started typing on the terminal keyboard.
   
The left-side screen was split into six separate image feeds that cycled between locations every ten seconds. The right-side screen had two columns. One column had a continuing scroll of alphanumerics. The other was a command menu of some sort.
   
We stood just behind Lawson as he worked to navigate the menu choices on the screen.
   
After a few minutes he said, "I think I've got it."
   
A narrow display box appeared on the right-side screen.
   
"When was the footage you needed?" he asked.
   
I pulled my phone out and referred to the notations from the data disc. "October 27th. Start at 2200 hours."
   
"Right," said Lawson, typing commands into the keyboard.
   
A moment later, the right-side screen split into six separate image feeds, just like the left-side screen. Each feed had a timecode along the bottom of the image. After watching the feed cycle through I said, "There are eighteen cameras?"
   
"Yes," said Lawson. "Twelve outside, six inside."
   
"IR on the outdoor cams," said Mouse, inclining her head.
   
"That's right," said Lawson. "Full color video in daytime. Automatically switches to IR at night and records in grayscale."
   
"Which of the cameras cover the reserved rooms?" I said.
   
"That would be on the north side. Interior cameras."
   
"Show me those."
   
Lawson typed commands. The screen split into two image feeds. The top feed looked out on a long corridor with doors along either side. Just beyond the camera's view to the left of the feed was a small corridor that led to a stairwell. The bottom feed looked the same as the top feed except for a glare just outside the camera view that indicated glass.
   
Lawson pointed to the top feed. "That's the second floor, just outside rooms 225 and 223 to the left of the screen." He pointed to the bottom feed. "And that's the first floor, and rooms 113 and 111."
   
I pointed to the glare on the bottom feed. "Is that a window?"
   
"Side entrance," said Lawson. "Leads to the parking lot outside."
   
"North end of the building," said Mouse.
   
"Right," said Lawson.
   
We watched the progress of the footage in realtime for a few seconds.
   
"Can you speed it up a little?" I said.
   
"Sure," said Lawson, typing commands. The footage sped up slightly at twice normal time.
   
"Little more?"
   
Typed commands, then the footage went to four times as fast.
   
We watched.
   
I kept my eye on the timecode.
   
When it got close to 22:50, I said, "Go back to normal speed."
   
Lawson typed commands and the footage dropped back to normal.
   
"There," said Mouse, pointing to the bottom feed.
   
A figure stepped out of room 113.
   
Brittany.
   
She dialed her phone, put it to her ear, and started for the side entrance.
   
"Follow her," I said.
   
Lawson quickly typed commands.
   
Another image feed popped up, this one outside the motel. The view, in grayscale, showed the north side of the property looking out onto part of the parking lot, along the exterior wall of the building, and out toward Center Avenue to the west. Brittany came out through the side entrance, still on the phone, and stopped on the walkway just beyond the entrance door. The camera captured her in profile, standing along the lower edge of the frame. She looked out toward the parking lot, finished her call, then lowered the phone slightly, began to dial another number, and turned her back to the camera.
   
Then a flash of movement just beyond the camera's view and Brittany crumpled to the ground.
   
Lawson gasped.
   
Mouse said, "Shit."
   
Ice slithered up my back and I clenched my teeth in response. I shook away the sensation and leaned in toward the screen.
   
Brittany had fallen forward and was lying prone, arms splayed out above her head. Shadows played along the edge of the frame.
   
Then Brittany was dragged out of camera frame.
   
Lawson gave a strangled yelp.
   
"Holy shit," said Mouse.
   
What the hell--?
   
"Play that again," I said.
   
"Oh god," said Lawson, his face pale.
   
"Please," I said. "You don't have to look."
   
He nodded, typed commands on the keyboard, and turned away from the monitors.
   
The feed replayed. Brittany stepped out, finished her call, dialed her phone, and turned away. Movement, and Brittany crumpled, prone. Shadows flickered. Then Brittany was dragged away.
   
"Fuck a duck," said Mouse.
   
"There's another angle on that side of the building, right?" I said.
   
"Yes," said Lawson, "but please don't make me watch again."
   
I looked at him.
   
He had paled further and looked ready to collapse on himself.
   
I let out a long breath. "Okay, Mr. Lawson," I said. "We won't make you watch."
   
He sagged into the chair and let out a relieved sigh. "Thank you."
   
"We're going to need copies of that footage," I said.
   
He looked up at me. "You'll find those girls, won't you."
   
Mouse and I exchanged looks. "We hope to," I said. "Miss Renée's counting on us."
   
"Bless you both," Lawson said and straightened in the chair. "I'll have copies in a moment."
   
"Two other sets of footage, too," I said and gave him the dates and times for Eve and Sheena.
   
Lawson keyed a long series of commands into the terminal, then watched the right-side screen as the machine did his bidding.
   
I motioned to Mouse and we stepped away from the workstation while Lawson did his work.
   
Mouse said: "Not going to tell him about--"
   
"No," I said. "You saw his reaction to Brittany's footage."
   
She nodded. "Point. Back to Val to take a look?"
   
"Yeah. Maybe one of the other cameras can get us a better angle on Brittany's attacker."
   
"And then we slice and dice?"
   
"And then we slice and dice," I said.
   
Mouse rubbed her hands together. "Wiz. And then we can start after Hiller and her boyfriends."
   
"As soon as Val and Kid get us more info."
   
"I know, I know," Mouse said. "No blind shooting. Just itching to get it over with."
   
"So am I," I said.
   
"I've got it," Lawson called out.
   
We turned back to him.
   
He held out a data disc in a jewel case. "Here you go," he said. "It's all there."
   
"Thank you," I said, taking the disc.
   
"Do me a favor?" he said.
   
"If we can," I said.
   
"Find the bastard and make 'em pay."


(to be continued...)


"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part5
 

"Born of the Blade" - Part Three

"Here we go," said Absinthe, tapping commands into her keyboard.
   
We were gathered around a desktop terminal in the club's upstairs office. Absinthe gestured at the screen as a display box appeared and video footage started to play. The angle looked down at a set of low cushioned chairs around a table near the front of the club.
   
"There," said Absinthe.
   
Brittany sat on one of the chairs dressed in a long sleeved black dress that fell to mid thigh, a drink in hand. Next to her was a blond twentysomething male with close-cropped curly hair taking a swig from his drink before resuming conversation.
   
I checked the image on my phone.
   
Todd Pearson stared up at me.
   
"That's Pearson," I said, looking back at the footage.
   
We watched them talk for another few minutes. Then they finished their drinks, got up from the table, and walked out of camera view.
   
Absinthe tapped out commands and another video box appeared, this one an angle on the front entrance. We watched Brittany and Todd leave the club.
   
"That's one set," said Absinthe and keyed more commands.
   
Another display box and another stream of footage.
   
We identified Eve and Sheena with their clients, each pair seated at other parts of the club. Eve with Cynthia Baker, Sheena with Dale Wannamaker. All three clients matched the images Miss Renée had given us. The footage was roughly the same. Sit, drink, and talk, then leave the club. Eve altered that by dancing with her client for a short string of songs before they headed out.
   
When the last stream ended, Absinthe leaned back in her chair and looked at us. "That get you what you needed?"
   
"I think so," I said. "Can you send those to Val?"
   
"Will do," said Absinthe, leaning forward again and keying commands. Then: "Done."
   
"Thanks," I said to Absinthe.
   
She nodded. "You'll find them, won't you."
   
"We will," I said.
   
I stepped away from the desk toward the window that looked out onto the dance floor below, pulled out my phone, and called Val.
   
"I got vids from Sis?" she said.
   
"Security cam feed," I said. "I need you to track the girls and their clients after they leave the club."
   
"Copy that," said Val. "Oh, and I finished a search with West Precinct. Nil on those reports. I'll try another pass, though. Different params."
   
"And BCU?"
   
I heard Val suck in a breath. "Not yet. But soon."
   
"Keep us posted."
   
"Wilco."
   
After Val hung up, a thought struck and I called Miss Renée.
   
"Kat," she said. "You found them already?"
   
"Not quite," I said. "But thanks for the vote of confidence."
   
"Any leads at least?"
   
"Possible leads."
   
"Good."
   
"Can you tell me which of the Copper Girls operating in BCU look similar to our three?"
   
"Similar?"
   
"Yeah. Looks, build, complexion. That sort of thing."
   
"You think there's some kind of connection?"
   
"Maybe."
   
"I don't know off the top of my head but I'll have one of the ladies run a search. Shouldn't be long. I'll call when I have it."
   
"Thanks."
   
I hung up and found Mouse standing near me. I told her what I'd said to Miss Renée
   
"Hadn't thought of that" she said. "So what's next?"
   
Popped optic clock.
   
12:07:42
   
"Lunch," I said.
   
"Good call," said Mouse. "Fuel up before we slice and dice the kidnappers."
   
"Could just be one."
   
"More is merrier," said Mouse.


*   *   *

We stood by a Korean taco truck run out of an old schoolbus a block from the White Rabbit waiting for them to call our order. The dozen other patrons kept their distance from us, typical when a meter-ninety of dark haired Amazon in black biker leathers is standing nearby. It didn't help Mouse was still wearing her back scabbards.
   
At least no one called the blue boys on us.
   
My phone chirped for attention.
   
Mouse signaled she would pick up our order and I nodded and answered.
   
Val.
   
"All three went to the Roadside Motor Inn," she said. "Over on Center, just north of 48th. Got them on street cams all the way there until they got to the motel entrance. But the entrance leads to what looks like a courtyard parking lot. Cams couldn't see that far in."
   
"What about motel surveillance?"
   
"If they have it, it's not linked to the 'Net. Could be self-contained inhouse. I'd have to get in there to look."
   
"Roadside Motor Inn."
   
"Yeah. 5434 Center Avenue."
   
"Is that one on the list from Miss Renée?"
   
"Hang on." A few key taps, then: "Yup. It is."
   
"Mouse and I will check with the motel about surveillance," I said. "And you said the three girls went there with their clients."
   
"Yup. Clients drove."
   
A thought struck. "Clients drove there and back?"
   
"Good question. Drove there. I'll check ahead on the feeds."
   
"Call me with what you find."
   
"Wilco."
   
I hung up just as Mouse walked up with our orders. She handed me my soy bulgogi taco and I took a bite before telling her what Val had said.
   
When I finished she said, "What're you thinking?"
   
I started back toward our Royale, still eating my taco. Mouse followed and matched my pace. "Those dates and times," I said. "On the data file. Must be when all three girls checked back to Heavenly Dreams. But nothing noted after that."
   
"You thinking whoever got them did it after they finished their business at the motel?"
   
"Yeah," I said. "Question is: where did they get them? At the motel? Enroute from?"
   
"Could be someone who works there," Mouse said.
   
"Maybe. Some staff person who doesn't like what they do."
   
"Well, if there's trouble, at least it's not the Ascot Arms."
   
"Yeah," I said. "We can't let them have all our shootouts."


*   *   *
   
We had just gotten back to the Royale when Val called.
   
"No on the drive back," she said. "Cams show the client cars leaving the motel but I only show the client driving. No girls with them."

"Okay," I said. "Any update on police reports?"
   
"Second pass at West Precinct also nil. BCU gave up three days before I had to back out."
   
"Security?"
   
"Yeah. They got close, too. But I left in time. I'll try again in a bit."
   
"Anything in those three days?"
   
"Also nil. Sorry."
   
"Keep checking."
   
"Wilco."


*   *   *
   
We were turning south onto Center Street from 41st when my phone chirped.
   
Miss Renée.
   
I put the phone on speaker and slipped it into the dashboard holder.
   
"I have the info on the girls you wanted," she said.
   
"How many?"
   
"Three others," said Miss Renée. "Brandi, Starr, and Rhianna."
   
"Call them," I said. "Tell them not to take on any clients until further notice. Have them go someplace safe."
   
I heard her rattle off instructions to someone nearby then she came back on the line. "Safe. What do you mean?"
   
"As in where no one can get to them."
   
She gasped. "Oh my god. A stalker?"
   
"Could be. And it looks like they may be targeting Copper Girls who look like our three."
   
"I'll have Sam and Dean pick them up and bring them back to the office."
   
"Sam and Dean?"
   
"Two of our security guys here."
   
"What kind of security?"
   
"Private. Like you two ladies."
   
"Good. I'll keep you posted as I know more."
   
I hung up and was about to put the phone away when it chirped again.
   
Val.
   
On speaker and the dash holder.
   
"More on the clients?" I said.
   
"No," said Val. "Something else. Reports from South Precinct."
   
Mouse and I exchanged looks.
   
South Precinct meant Southside.
   
"They found bodies," Val went on. "First was on the 28th. October. Dumpster behind a mom and pop shop on Campbell and Mayfair. Throat slashed. Stabbed in the gut twice. Face cut up." Val swallowed. "I recognized the dress from the cam feed. It's Brittany."
   
"Shit," said Mouse.
   
"And," Val went on, "her heart's been removed."
   
"Holy shit," said Mouse.
   
"You said bodies," I said, my mouth suddenly dry.
   
"Yeah," said Val. "Other one's Eve. Red dress. Like in the cam feed. Found at Meecham Park on the 4th. Same as Brittany. Slashed throat. Cut up face. Gut stabs. No heart." Some keytaps, then Val made a sound of disgust. "Can't look anymore."
   
"What about Sheena?"
   
"Nil on her." Key tapping, then: "Far as I can tell, they're treating Brittany as a one-off and Eve as 'ganger casualty."
   
"Let me guess," I said. "Steel Demons."
   
"Bingo."
   
That made sense. The Steel Demons punkergang owned a huge swath of Southside, from South Harbor east to Waterman and Campbell south to Sunset and were known for using blades on their victims and rivals. Meecham Park was on the northwest corner of their turf.
   
But--
   
"Eve's head," I said.
   
"Yeah," said Mouse.
   
"Bingo again," said Val. "Eve still had her head. So it can't be the Demons."
   
"Can't be the Trogs either," said Mouse. "Too far from Winn Town. What other punkergang uses blades exclusively?"
   
"Just those two," I said.
   
"Fuck," said Mouse.
   
"Yeah," I said.
   
"What?" said Val.
   
"I definitely think we have a serial killer on our hands," I said and I pulled the car into the Roadside's parking lot, slid into an empty parking slot near the main entrance and cut the engine.
   
"Fuck," said Val.
   
"That'll be a new one," said Mouse.
   
"Shouldn't we let the blue boys in on this?" said Val. "I mean, that's what they do, right?"
   
"We don't exactly play well with law enforcement," I said.
   
"I know that," said Val. "I meant an anon tip."
   
"Miss Renée asked us to help her," I said. "That's what we're gonna do."
   
"Does that include going after a serial killer?" said Val.
   
"Let us handle that part, Val," I said. "Just keep on with the infodumps."
   
"Okay by me," said Val.
   
When I hung up, Mouse said, "She's got a point, though."
   
"About?"
   
"Does helping Miss Renée include going after a serial killer?"
   
"It'll help keep her girls safe. End the threat."
   
"You sure this isn't falling into wetwork?" said Mouse.
   
"No."
   
"If you say so."
   
"You having second thoughts?"
   
"No."
   
"I can solo this one if you're not in on this."
   
Mouse shook her head. "No. Just thinking out loud. I'm in. Besides, somebody's gotta keep your big ass out of trouble. That way it can fit into that slinky red dress for Jake."
   
"Ha ha," I said and reached for my phone again. "I'd better call."
   
I dialed Miss Renée and told her about Brittany and Eve.
   
A long silence.
   
Then: "Another 500,000 Credits and you two stop him. Her. Them. Whoever."
   
"Understood," I said. "We'll get it done."
   
She hung up without further comment.
   
"And?" said Mouse.
   
"Stop them."
   
She nodded.
   
I was about to put my phone away when it chirped.
   
Revell.
   
"Hey, Rev," I said, putting the phone on speaker. "What's going on."
   
"We have problem," Revell said. "Specs has been attacked."
   
I felt my gut clench.
   
Next to me, Mouse sucked in a breath through gritted teeth.
   
"What happened?" I said.
   
"Don't worry," he said. "He is still alive. But barely. Doc is taking care of him now. He will keep me informed."
   
"Sonofabitch," said Mouse.
   
"We will talk more when you finish," Revel said. "Focus on run."
   
He ended the call.
   
Chirp.
   
Another call.
   
Val.
   
I put her on speaker.
   
"Go," I said.
   
"Hit on Sheena," said Val. "Meecham Park, two hours ago. Same as the others."
   
I sucked in a breath between gritted teeth.
   
"Shit," said Mouse.
   
"Thanks, Val," I said.
   
I put my phone away, let out a long breath, and turned to Mouse. "Let go find us a serial killer."


(to be continued...)


"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4
 

"Born of the Blade" - Part Two

Twenty minutes later were in Valkyrie's East End loft apartment done in sleek chrome and black furniture and seated on padded metal folding chairs next to her three-screen workstation.
   
Valkyrie, petite and willowy, red hair falling across her face, looking as if she'd just stepped out of the shower, skull-and-crossbones eyepatch fixed to her right eye, took the disc and inserted it into her terminal tower. "Here we go," she said typing commands on her keyboard. She gestured to the screens as photos of the three women and their biographical information popped up, one on each screen.
   
"So who are we looking at?" said Val, reaching for the can of Tsunami cola next to her terminal keyboard and taking a swig.
   
"Miss Renée's employees," I said. "These three have gone missing. We've got to find them."
   
"Copy that."
   
As I studied the images on the screens, a thought struck.
   
"Are they related?" said Mouse.
   
"Was thinking the same thing," I said.
   
"Me, too," said Val. "But not according to this." She tapped the left-side screen. "Brittany is really Gladys Smith, twenty-one. Originally from San Angeles." Tapped the center screen. "Eve is Guadalupe Ramirez from Denver, Free Zone. Twenty." Right-side screen. "Sheena is Laura Garner from Boston, NorFed. Also twenty."
   
"But look at them," I said.
   
All three women were olive-skinned with round faces, red-brown hair, and dark eyes. Hair length varied between them but all were at least shoulder length.
   
"Could pass for sisters," said Mouse and shuddered.
   
"That weird you out?" said Val.
   
"Bad experience," said Mouse.
   
"How tall are they?" I said.
   
Val studied the screens then looked at us. "Meter sixty-five. All three."
   
Queasiness bubbled in my gut.
   
"Something tells me that's not coincidence," I said.
   
"Profiling," said Val. "Gotta be."
   
"But profiling for what?" said Mouse. "Trafficking again?" She gave me a look. "You think White Brotherhood's back?"
   
Val quirked both eyebrows at us. "You two tangled with the Brotherhood?"
   
Mouse nodded. "Two months back. They were going after BCU co-eds."
   
"They were Brotherhood go-betweens, not actual operatives," I said. "We shut them down, got the girls out."
   
"Shee-it," said Val, shaking her head. "You two know how to pick 'em."
   
"Miss Renée said these three were working the university," I said. "Do they have addresses there or nearby?"
   
Val turned back to the screens, then keyed commands to her terminal and studied the center screen as a map blossomed to life showing BCU and the surrounding streets. Three icons popped up on the map.
   
"Yup," said Val. "Avon and 46th for Brittany. Arden just past 33rd for Sheena. And Mason and 48th for Eve." More typing. "Looks like apartments."
   
"Send me those addresses," I said. "And the pics."
   
"Sending now," said Val, typing commands.
   
A few seconds later, my phone trilled. I checked, saw the list of addresses and the three pictures.
   
"Got it," I said.
   
"More info," said Val, continuing to type commands. Three images appeared on the center screen. They looked like pics from ID badges. The first was of a blond twentysomething male with cropped curly hair and a slight sneer on his face. The label below his read: "Todd Pearson." The next image was of a thirtyish woman with square-cut dark hair and a round face. "Cynthia Baker." The last was "Dale Wannamaker," early twenties with a buzz cut and a long narrow face.
   
Pearson and Wannamaker were BCU students. Baker was a BCU employee in the records department.
   
"There are notations here," said Val as another display box appeared on the center screen while she typed.
   
I looked.
   
The notations read: "Britt-Pearson, 10-27, 2100, check 2250. Eve-Baker, 11-2, 1930, check 2350. Sheena-Wannamaker, 11-7, 2120, check 2245."
   
Mouse and I studied them for a moment.
   
"Dates and times?" said Mouse.
   
"I think so," I said and pointed at the phrase "check 2345."  "Must be when Brittany checked in. Can you send me those, too, Val?"
   
"Yup," said Val, keying commands.
   
Another few seconds and my phone trilled again.
   
"What next?" Val and Mouse chorused.
   
I said to Val: "See if you can do a street cam sweep around the university. Some feed picked them up."
   
"Might take a while," Val said. "That's a lot of cams."
   
"Do what you can. Also, see if you can snoop around the blue boys for any reports involving missing women fitting their descriptions. Go back at least two weeks."
   
"That one might be faster. I've opened West Precinct before."
   
"Let me know if you find anything."
   
"Oh--BCU cops, too?"
   
"Yeah," I said. "See if they logged anything."
   
Val made a small face. "I'll see what I can do. That one might take a little doing."
   
"Them, too?" I said. "I thought it was just the boots on the ground." BCU Campus Security meant business. Even your garden-variety ronin knew better than to tangle with them. Not unless you had a couple of tanks on your side, and even then, the odds were iffy.
   
"Nope," said Val. "Their 'jockeys, too. Almost on par with the White Hats."
   
"White Hats?"
   
"'Netspace cops."
   
"Do what you can," I said.
   
"And us?" said Mouse.
   
"We check BCU," I said. "Which means a visit to Absinthe."
   
"Tell Sis I said hi," said Val.


*   *   *

Marco the huge, beefy, pony-tailed bouncer opened the White Rabbit's front door and grinned down at us. "Hey, Ladies," he said.
   
"Marco," I said. "Absinthe in?"
   
"Sure," he said and opened the door to let us in.
   
In daylight, the club lost some of its mystique and looked completely bare. Tables and chairs were stacked along one wall and a black tarp covered the two giant columns of speakers that flanked the deejay's platform.
   
Absinthe, petite, willowy, with jet-black hair and blood-red highlights, wearing a corset, dark purple blouse with bell sleeves, and knee-length black skirt above tall lace-up boots, stood behind the bar studying a datatab.
   
"Boss," said Marco.
   
Absinthe looked up, smiled, put the datatab down on the bartop, and motioned us over.
   
We headed toward the bar.
   
Absinthe came around with outstretched arms. "A pleasure to see you two."
   
"Val says hi," said Mouse.
   
Absinthe harrumphed and put her hands on her hips. "She hasn't called in a week and she thinks that'll smooth things over?"
   
"Not our place," I said, hands up, palms out.
   
"I'll deal with Sis later. What can I do for you?"
   
"Need local info."
   
"Not Specs?"
   
"Not in his wheelhouse."
   
"And it's in mine?"
   
"Miss Renée's Copper Girls."
   
"Ah. I see."
   
"They work a big area around BCU," I said.
   
"They do," said Absinthe. "I know them on sight and by name. All fifteen. They often use the White Rabbit as a meet up.
   
I quirked an eyebrow. "You allow them to do business here?"
   
Absinthe laughed. "Not final business. They do that elsewhere. But they meet their clients here. A drink or two. A couple of turns on the dance floor. That's all. Why the interest?"
   
"Three of them have gone missing," I said.
   
Absinthe frowned. "That's a problem."
   
"Miss Renée asked us to find them." I pulled my phone from inside my jacket and showed her the pictures of the three women. "These three."
   
Absinthe's frown deepened. "Brittany, Eve, and Sheena."
   
"They were regulars?" I said.
   
"More than regulars. Their patch covered the Rabbit and everything from Steiner to Center, and 38th down to Hillside."
   
"So this was homebase."
   
"It was. Is. They're here practically every night. Nice girls, too. Friendly. Smart. The bartenders like them."
   
"You'd have them on your security feeds, right?"
   
"Yes."
   
"Can you pull them for us? I've got dates and times."
   
Absinthe nodded and gestured toward the stairs that led to her upstairs office. "This way."
   
"What are you thinking?" said Mouse.
   
"Let's confirm Miss Renée's info on those last known clients," I said.


(to be continued...)


"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 3