It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'
"Well, this neighborhood looks like it's seen better days."
Scotty's offhand comment and his tight, grim smile as he shut Lilly's car door behind her cut through the din of traffic and summed up her own thoughts perfectly. The overcast sky echoed the general mood of the block, one of a dozen or so low-rent Kensington neighborhoods she'd inhabited as a child, where row upon row of identical brownstones stood at attention as far as the eye could see. The homes, whose rich ornamentation near the eaves and around the windows suggested they'd once been the talk of the town, now looked almost embarrassed at their varying stages of dereliction and neglect.
"It has," she replied, her voice heavy. The neighborhood had already begun a rapid downhill spiral well before she lived here. But as she looked around at boarded-up buildings covered in gang graffiti, rusty chain-link fences outlining patches of dead grass where gas stations and corner groceries once stood, and potholed streets lined with trash that danced and skittered along the curbs, it was obvious things were much worse now.
Her partner's ebony brows arched in a silent question, and she replied with a tight smile. "I lived around the corner for a while when I was a kid."
Scotty didn't press for details. He merely nodded as they fell into step, weaving their way through a hodgepodge of uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives going about their morning's work. Some loaded evidence into large white vans, while others escorted scraps of humanity in varying stages of chemical influence into waiting squad cars. Lilly's eyes fell involuntarily on a thirty-something blonde woman with a blanket draped over her shoulders. Her face was etched with premature lines; her blue eyes were pale and faraway as they blinked their adjustment to daylight.
Wonder how many dependents that one has.
"There you are, gorgeous!"
The familiar, booming voice jerked Lilly's attention away from the miserable scene and to her right, where, sure enough, Saccardo was waiting for her, a coffee in each hand, a broad smile on his face.
"What's he doin' here?" Scotty grumbled next to her.
"Nice to see you, too, Valens." Saccardo leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to Lilly's cheek. "Sorry I had to take off too early to wish you good morning all…proper-like." These last words were spoken in a mischievous half-whisper, for which she was glad, but poorly concealed eye-roll from her partner told her he'd heard them all the same.
"Everything all right?" Saccardo asked.
"Fine." Lilly forced lightness into her voice. "I, uh…I lost an earring."
"Oh, really?" He tilted his head to the side, eyes wide with mock innocence. "Where?"
"You know where."
He smirked, and she tossed him an exasperated glare."Just check for me, will you?"
"Sure thing." Saccardo extended the Starbucks cup in his right hand. "Here. Figured you might want a coffee." After such a late night. He hadn't said the words, but they danced in his eyes and at the corners of his mouth just the same.
Smiling, Lilly wrapped her fingers around the little cardboard cup. The warmth of the smooth sides knocked the edge off the chill in the air; the invigorating aroma was a welcome contrast to the decay all around them.
"Thanks," she said.
Saccardo's dark gaze darted from her to a peevish-looking Scotty. "Oh. Sorry, man. Want mine?" He held out an oversized coffee cup, its clear plastic filled to the brim with some sort of frozen concoction, topped off with a mountain of chocolate-drizzled whipped cream. "It's a triple…mocha thing."
Scotty eyed the drink with barely-disguised disdain. "Come with a spoon?"
Saccardo gave an uncomfortable laugh. "That's a good one."
Cutting an annoyed glance at her partner, Lilly then dismissed him from her mind and clicked her attention back to Saccardo. "So what are you doing here? You part of tossin' this place?"
"Yeah." Saccardo placed a hand on her back to guide her through the chaos between where they stood and the front door. "Crack, meth, you name it, my guys found it. Came in early to help finish up and found a nice little present for you in the basement."
Lilly arched a brow. "That the surprise you texted me about?"
"You'll see." Grinning, he escorted her through the front door and down a dark, dangerous-looking staircase. Ducking to avoid a low-hanging ceiling bean, they arrived in a basement of cloying odors and clinging dampness, where Saccardo knelt on the cement floor beside a wood-paneled wall.
"Found a false panel in here; thought maybe we'd hit the mother lode, but instead I found this." Saccardo's flashlight beam fell onto a small cutout in the wall, where a worn-looking burgundy suitcase of obviously advanced age nestled inside. "Luggage tag has the name and address of one Eleanor King."
"Eleanor King," Scotty echoed from behind her, and Lilly knew the wheels were spinning in his mind just as they were in her own. "She a cold job?"
"I went ahead and did some checkin' before I called your boss." Saccardo pulled his phone from his pocket.
A grin tugged at Lilly's lips. "So that was you?"
"Yeah." He looked quite proud of himself. "Asked specifically for you; you like that?"
"Mmm." She tried a nonchalant shrug, but her grin gave her away. Scotty's impatient-sounding sigh did the same for him.
Clearing his throat, Saccardo pressed a button on his phone and showed Lilly an image of a decades-old Missing poster. "Meet Ellie King, twenty-four years old. This suitcase is the first anyone's seen or heard from her since 1962."
"Wow." Lilly's heart beat faster as she looked at the young, beautiful blonde woman in the photo. "You look through it yet?" She was already reaching into her pocket for a pair of latex gloves.
"Now what kind of guy would I be if I didn't let you do the honors?" Saccardo's dark eyes twinkled in the dim light as he pulled on his own pair of gloves. "I got a few minutes before I gotta be back at Headquarters."
Lilly stood back as Saccardo carefully slid the suitcase from its hiding place. This done, he turned to her with a smile and an outstretched hand. "All yours."
Alive with anticipation, she knelt on the cold floor beside Saccardo and ran a hand over the suitcase's faded, dusty exterior. Fabric was worn and peeling off in places; the latches were covered in rust. She wasn't sure they'd even work, but a few judicious wiggles and they sprang open, ready to reveal the satchel's long-hidden secrets.
A damp, earthy odor filled the air around them as she carefully lifted the lid and began to sift through the contents: sixties-era dresses and skirts, a couple pairs of high-heeled shoes, and various other personal effects. Tucked into the puckered fabric pocket in the lid were two paperbacks by one L. E. Bishop, an author Lilly had never heard of. All the items were age-yellowed and mildew-stained in places, but they were still intact, still able to be sent to the lab. Still able to speak for their long-missing owner.
Toward the bottom, Lilly found a steno pad.
"What's that?" Scotty asked, from where he'd crouched next to them.
"Not sure yet." Lilly glanced through the little notebook. Most of the pages were blank; the few toward the beginning that had been written on were covered with smeared scribbles in faded blue ink. "They took a lot of water damage. Can't make most of it out."
She handed the steno pad to Saccardo, who flipped through another couple pages. Suddenly, he stopped, his flashlight landing on the center of one page. "I dunno, Rush. This kinda looks like a threat to me."
"What makes you so sure?" Scotty asked.
"Well, probably this. 'By my hand you shall meet your end.' Underlined a couple times, too." Ignoring Scotty, Saccardo held out the notebook for Lilly to examine.
Sure enough, it did look like a threat letter. A chill ran through her as her eyes traveled slowly over the words. She tried to imagine the sort of person who'd write such a thing, and what might have happened to bring that person to such a drastic point.
"Find whoever wrote that, you'll probably figure out what happened to Ellie," Saccardo suggested.
"You think?" Scotty's voice was quiet, but machete-sharp.
If Ellie King's steno pad hadn't been an age-brittle piece of potentially key evidence, Lilly may well have thrown it at her partner. Instead, she settled for holding it out to him with another brief, irritated glance. "Let's get this to the lab."
His mouth a tight line, Scotty carefully took the weathered notebook from her hand and headed back toward daylight, his footsteps heavy on the creaky wooden stairs.
With him went a good deal of the tension, and Lilly sighed as she slipped one of Ellie's skirts into an evidence bag. Glancing up at Saccardo, she found him watching her, an amused gleam in his eyes.
"Hey, just between you and me, I'm not sure your partner's my biggest fan," he said.
Dammit, Scotty. She'd hoped the sour attitude was only obvious to her, but no such luck. Not that she was particularly surprised. Her partner never had been fantastic at hiding his true feelings.
She tried to smile away Saccardo's concern. "Oh, don't take it personally. Scotty's just…protective." She zipped the bag closed and laid it to the side. "I don't think he's really liked anyone I've dated."
"Hmm." Saccardo flashed a grin as he lifted the two paperbacks out of the suitcase. "Wonder why that is."
Lilly arched a brow. She was used to random witnesses assuming she and Scotty were more than partners, but she'd never expected such a misconception from Saccardo.
"Eddie." She met his gaze over the pile of folded, forty-five year-old clothing."You know it isn't like that with us."
"Okay." Saccardo shrugged as he zipped the books into the bag, his confident smile clear evidence that the matter was already forgotten. "Hey, I was thinkin' for Saturday, we could—"
A muffled, yet insistent electronic chirp cut him off. Muttering an apology, he dug his phone out of his coat pocket and glanced at it. "Sorry, Rush. It's the boss." He got to his feet, phone in hand, then tossed a devilish grin over his shoulder. "Oh, hey, check your pocket."
Lilly blinked up at him. "Check my what?"
Patting his shirt pocket, he raised the phone to his ear and turned toward the stairs. "Yeah. Okay…sure. When?" His voice and his footsteps faded as he climbed the stairs, melding into the rest of the din on the ground floor.
Frowning, Lilly reached into the breast pocket of her jacket, surprised to feel something cold and hard.
A smile bloomed. Her earring. He must've sneaked it in there during their brief embrace.
"Well played," she said aloud to the empty room as she slipped in the earring and double-checked the clasp.
Despite the overcast morning and the dark, dank basement, the sun was shining.
The wail of Aerosmith's electric guitars filled the car when Scotty started the engine. Angrily, he jabbed the button, sending a screaming Steven Tyler into merciful silence. Lil had hitched a ride back to Headquarters with Saccardo, which meant there wasn't any need for the radio to ease the discomfort this time. Scotty sighed with relief at the quiet, at the opportunity to be alone with his thoughts.
Who the hell did Saccardo think he was, nosing in on their case like that? Sure, he'd found the damn suitcase, but surely he had more Narcotics-related things to do than help Lil dig through its mildewed contents. And she was just as bad. Had it been anyone else, she'd have thanked whoever it was, then said, politely but firmly, that the two of them would take it from there. But now she was acting like some bubble-headed teenager, with her flirty smiles and her missing earring. She'd always been so careful about guarding her privacy; now, she might as well have "I'm Sleeping With Stupid" tattooed on her forehead.
Well, okay. Saccardo wasn't stupid. He was a good enough detective. For Narcotics, anyway. But he didn't know Lilly. A few weeks weren't nearly enough time to learn to read the subtle nuances of each expression, the unguarded little micro-flickers of emotion she just couldn't hide. That odd mix of bitterness and nostalgia in her blue eyes when they arrived at the scene, for instance. The cold edge in her voice when she talked about her childhood. The slight clenching of her jaw when she saw that blonde addict. Did Saccardo know about Lilly's past? Know that she was raised by a neglectful, alcoholic mother not unlike the one they'd seen on the sidewalk?
He couldn't. No way. Because if he did, he wouldn't be standing there with his ugly boots and his girly coffee, acting like a damn dog who deposits a dead rodent on the kitchen floor and expects his owner to be impressed.
But the hell of it was, Lilly was impressed, and that was what Scotty couldn't fathom. Was Eddie Saccardo so much fun that his mere presence could instantly bring that megawatt smile to her face? Or was she just that skilled at zipping up her true feelings every time he was around? And what the hell difference did it make, anyway? She was happy, dammit. She was happy.
Scotty's foul mood clung to him like cobwebs all the way into the squad room, where he poured himself a second cup of coffee and settled into his desk, nodding greetings to his co-workers and ignoring his partner. Vera and Jeffries had already retrieved Ellie King's box from Missing Persons. They stood before the group, ready to present their findings.
"Twenty-four year-old Eleanor King." Jeffries held up a larger version of the Missing Persons poster Scotty had caught only a glimpse of from Saccardo's cell phone. The black-and-white photo displayed a beautiful young woman, her smile dazzling, her eyes full of hope and life. "Vanished without a trace on June 10, 1962, just three weeks before her wedding."
"Meet the fiancé: James Fleming." The heavyset Vera held up a yellowed newspaper with the same smiling blonde, now with a handsome, dark-haired man to her left. "His grandfather founded the Fleming Motor Company in 1914."
Scotty's mental gears began to crank. "Fleming…that was one of those small American car companies, right? Mostly luxury sedans, '40s and '50s?"
Stillman nodded. "My old man's boss drove a '46 Fleming Eagle. Everyone envied that car."
"And like a lot of the original small auto makers, Fleming got bought out by one of the big boys," Jeffries said. "In this case, Chrysler in 1970. Not sure what the Flemings are up to now."
Vera consulted a sheaf of paperwork from the box. "Looks like the cops back in the day talked to the fiancé several times, but nothing stuck. Prevailing theory was Ellie got cold feet and pulled a Runaway Bride."
"But that note we found indicates otherwise," Lilly pointed out.
The boss nodded. "That's why the case is ours now."
"Last to see was Ellie's older sister Bridget." Vera glanced up from the notes he was reading. "The two of 'em went out to dinner the night Ellie disappeared; Bridget said Ellie dropped her off. That was the last time anyone saw her."
"Any other family we need to talk to?" Miller asked.
Stillman shook his head. "Parents both died in a car accident three years before."
Lilly flipped through the file Will had just handed her. "Kinda looks like the Flemings took Ellie in." She held up a black-and-white photo of Ellie, James, and an older, portlier version of James, along with a woman of similar age, all posed in front of a shiny, freshly-minted convertible. A grinning Ellie held the keys. "Engagement present?"
"Yeah, maybe." Scotty took the photo from her outstretched hand and studied it, though his interest was inevitably drawn more to the car than the people. That was a sweet ride, no doubt about it. Quality and craftsmanship evident on every inch of that beauty, from her chrome hood ornament to the tip of her tailfins. They sure didn't make 'em like that anymore.
"We know what happened to the car?" Scotty asked, his eyes still glued to the photo.
"That's as much of a mystery as Ellie is," Jeffries replied.
"That's a shame." Scotty gave the car one last, lingering look, then handed the photo back to his partner.
"Well, let's get started," Stillman suggested. "Will, you and Nicky see if you can find any trace of the car. Forty-five years, who knows what people might remember? Miller, track down the sister. I'll do the same with the fiancé, Fleming…and Scotty and Lil, follow up on that suitcase. See if CSU's got any new tidbits for us."
Chairs scraped and papers rustled as the detectives gathered their things and prepared to launch into the day's tasks. Lilly took another long sip from the cardboard cup Saccardo had given her at the scene, then gazed at it with a slightly-dreamy smile on her face. When she glanced up and saw Scotty watching her, she erased the smile and hastily set the cup down.
"Shall we?" she asked.
Irritation poked him in the chest. "Sure you wouldn't rather take Saccardo?"
Her eyes sparked. For a moment, he was sure she was about to read him the riot act, but the blue flame of anger rapidly chilled to something far more distant and icy. It was as though she'd just decided it wasn't worth it. That he wasn't worth it.
"We're at work, Scotty. So…let's work." Without waiting for his response, she turned and clicked her way toward the exit.
Scotty quickly followed, knowing from experience that as soon as they jumped into this case, as soon as they had the distractions of evidence and witnesses and all the knots and tangles that would inevitably crop up, that things between them would be smoothed over. He and Lilly were partners, after all. A good team. That hadn't changed.
It was about the only thing that hadn't.