It’s still early, a little past one-thirty in the afternoon, as I step outside. Though, a blanket of darkening clouds gives the impression it’s later than it is. As the sky rumbles, a gust of wind sends a parade of goosebumps rippling across my forearms. A trickle of misty rain wets my face. I’m on the sidewalk, hand raised, ready to whistle for a taxi, when the snub end of cold steel nudges the base of my skull.
“Into the car,” a distinctly feminine voice commands.
How I had failed to notice the blue Subaru Legacy parked right there in front of the police station, I don’t know.
My knees smack against the steering wheel as I crawl into the driver’s side. She retreats the barrel of the gun, but only for an instant, as she slides in behind me.
The keys are in the ignition.
“Ten and two,” she says, directing my hands to the steering wheel. “Now, don’t move.”
With her left hand, she reaches around the driver’s seat, pulls back the flap of my jacket, and takes hold of my gun. For a split-second I play with the idea of a little flip-gun tactic but cancel it as the barrel of her pistol grinds against my right ear.
“Now, drive,” she says, once the gun has been safely confiscated.
The car is already in gear as I retract the seat, turn the engine.
“Where are we going?”
“Take the parkway to the tunnel and cross over the bridge.”
The city whizzes past in a blur. Time is marked by the scrape of wiper blades as they play their rhythmic game of tag back and forth across the windshield. In the reflection of the rearview mirror, I cheat a glance at her face and a pair of light blue eyes that appear almost white, punctuated by irises so large and dark they look like tiny, dark sinkholes, empty and endless.
At the intersection, just after crossing the bridge, I’m directed to take a hard right.
“Here?” I ask.
“Here!” she screams.
Tires screech as the car goes skirting through the intersection a full second after the light changes red.
We make it through safely, and continue our journey through a rundown industrial zone.
As the skyscrapers of downtown fade in the rearview mirror, the car speeds past a series of abandoned buildings.
Stealing another glance off the rearview mirror, I take in the rest of her face, which features a prominent nose edged by narrow cheeks and a thin angular jaw.
In the parking lot of a neglected building she orders me to pull in. I obey, guiding the vehicle into the empty. The car’s suspension squeals as I pilot a run of potholes.
“Kill it,” she says.
The car’s engine dies.
“Natalie LaChance?” I say, peering up at the mirror.
“So, it was you?” she confirms, her voice stricken with rage.
“What was me?”
“Who do you work for?”
“No one,” I tell her.
“Is that right?” she says, digging the gun’s barrel into the back of my neck.
“Feel free to check my tax return?”
“Where did you hear that name?”
“James Vance whispered it to me just before he died.”
“So, he is dead?” she says, drawing the gun back a little.
“Last night, in my apartment,” I say.
“And you were with him when he died?”
“I was minding my own business when the guy showed up at my door with a bullet in his back.”
The pointedness in her voice melts away, replaced, now, by a tone of genuine curiosity. “What was he doing in your apartment?”
“Aside from dying, I have no idea. He’d already been shot by the time he came crashing through my door.”
Silence invades the space between us as she attempts to fit the disparate pieces together. “What were you doing in the subway this afternoon?”
“Saving your life, or didn’t you notice?”
“How’d you know where I’d be?”
“I followed you,” I admit.
“From Vance’s apartment.”
“That was you?”
“You mean was I the guy you clobbered with a vase this morning, yes, that was me.” “What were you doing in his apartment?”
“My job. You?”
“You’re a cop?” she asks.
“A private investigator. There’s a license in my coat pocket.”
For the second time, her hand reaches around my left side and into my jacket.
“Sphinx Mulroney,” she says, out loud. “That’s your real name, Sphinx?”
“There’s a driver’s license in there somewhere,” I tell her.
“Who was the man in the subway?” she asks.
“If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say a contract killer.”
“Contract killer?” The two words are spoken as if they possessed no logical association.
“At least it’s not personal,” I tell her. “Now, what’s your connection to Vance?”
“I’m asking the questions here,” she says, offering a gentle reminder with the speaking end of her pistol. “You said he was shot in the back?”
“The medical examiner determined the hole was made by a .22 caliber slug.”
“Who put it there?”
“It´s not a stretch to assume it was the same person who tried to put one in you.”
“Is that the caliber gun the man in the subway was carrying?” she asks.
“The caliber shell they dug out of the wall was a 9-millimeter.”
“What did the police say about it?”
“Listen,” I say, reaching up to adjust the mirror so that it centers her face. “I think this dialogue would be a lot more fruitful if you told me what your role is in all of this.”
Retreating the gun, I watch as she leans back, glances out the window. “I hired Vance to find my sister.”
“My little sister. We were separated by the adoption agency after our parents died. She was just a baby, too young to remember she even had a sister. But I never forgot.”
She goes on to describe her parent’s death in an auto accident and how she and her sister were taken into protective custody by CPS. Her sister was only a year and a half, a baby while Natalie was all of six years old. It was easy to find a family for her sister as most adoptive parents prefer babies to grown children. Natalie, on the other hand, spent years in foster care before finding a home. And, although, she was treated well by her adoptive parents and welcomed fully into their family, she never forgot about her sister and had made a campaign out of trying to locate her. The only problem was, her sister’s adoption had been sealed. This is what ultimately led her to contact James Vance, a specialist at finding missing people.
“And your sister,” I say, “what was her name?”
“Jennifer,” she says. “Why?”
“Does that name mean something to you?”
“I believe Vance was on his way to meet her when he was gunned down.”
“Then he must have found her!” she says, her voice coated with excitement. “He must have tracked her down!”
“According to his phone log, he spoke with her the day he was killed.”
She thinks about it. “So, why was he going to see you?”
“I’m not sure he was coming to see me,” I say. “Jennifer Corjette happens to live just across the hall from me.”
“From you?” she elates. “Then you know where she lives?”
“I do,” I tell her.
“Take me to see her!” she says.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea right now.”.
“That wasn’t a suggestion,” she says, grinding the muzzle of the gun into the base of my skull again.
“It’s not that simple,” I tell her.
“Sure it is. You put the car in drive and—”
“Your sister tried to kill herself yesterday.”
“What?” Natalie’s whole body stiffens. “Why? How?”
“Why, I don’t know. How, with a razor blade and warm bath water.”
“But, I… I don’t understand. How do you know this?”
“I was the one who found her.”
“And you don’t know why?”
“If I’m being honest, I didn’t know your sister that well. The first we spoke was the day before yesterday when she approached me about finding a friend of hers that had recently gone missing.”
Natalie shakes her head. “Wait a minute, she was looking for someone too?”
“A friend of hers, coworker actually, hasn’t been seen since Monday night.”
“Let me get this straight,” Natalie says. “Three days ago, a friend of Jennifer’s goes missing, she asks you for help, then the very next day tries to kill herself. And later that night, James Vance is murdered, shot in the back just outside Jennifer’s apartment.”
“If you’re asking me, do I think it’s all one big coincidence, the answer is no.”
“You said Vance died in your apartment last night,” she says. “What time was that?”
“A little past two o’clock in the morning.”
“What do you suppose he was doing there so late? He couldn’t possibly have been hoping to speak with her at that hour. Unless, perhaps, he knew something was wrong and went there to warn her.”
“I doubt that,” I say.
“Why not?” Natalie challenges.
“Your sister is a stripper,” I tell her. “Two o’clock is typically when she gets off. If Vance was there that late, it probably means that’s when she coordinated it that way.”
In the mirror, I watch as Natalie’s lips part as if she wants to say something, but close again. A moment of silence passes between us before she speaks. “I don’t understand, why would she try and kill herself only hours after learning I was trying to find her?”
“There’s more to what’s going on here than we know,” I explain.
I take a deep breath. “It’s possible your sister’s suicide might have been staged.”
“Staged? You mean someone tried to kill her and make it look like suicide? Who would do that? Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. What I do know is that her best friend is missing, she’s in the hospital, and Vance is dead. It’s possible it all may have something to do with her friend’s ex-boyfriend, but, like I said, I don’t know.”
“But if you’re right, and someone already tried to kill her once, what’s to stop them from trying again? We need to protect her.”
“She’s in the hospital now, trust me, that’s the safest place she could be. There are cameras everywhere, on site security guards, and nurses attending to her round the clock.”
“Can I see her, at least?”
“I’m sure they’re not admitting visitors yet. Besides, you’re better off waiting. You’re going to want that initial reunion to come under better circumstances.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Natalie says.
“Do you mind me asking what, exactly, you were doing in Vance’s apartment this morning?”
“I’d gone there to drop off a payment as we’d arranged,” she says. “When no one answered the door, I tried his cellphone but was met by his voicemail. I suppose I panicked, thinking he might have suffered a heart attack or an aneurism. The door was locked, but there was a spare key above the door frame. But once I was inside, nothing in the apartment looked out of place. There were dishes in the sink, laundry in the hamper, and papers on his desk. That’s when I heard someone coming up the stairs. Unsure what to do, I grabbed the closest thing I could find to a weapon to defend myself and hid. I saw you enter without knocking. The first and most obvious conclusion I drew was that you were there to cover up whatever you had done to Vance.”
Self-preservation was apparently her next thought.
“Where were you headed before the shooting in the subway?” I ask.
“Figuring Vance had been killed, I called the Office of the County Medical Examiner after fleeing his apartment to see if anyone matching his description had been brought in. The man who answered the phone took down my inquest and told me he’d look into it and call me back. I got a phone call about twenty minutes later confirming they did, indeed, have a body matching that description and asking if I’d like to come in and identify him.”
“But you went somewhere first.”
“I do have a job. Besides, I needed to submit the specifications of a project I´ve been working on. Afterwards, I pretended not to be feeling well and asked for the rest of the day off.”
“That’s when you went home and received the call from the county medical examiner?”
“Yes, which is where I was going when I entered the subway tunnel.”
“What happened down there anyway, how did he not get the drop on you?”
“The heel of my stiletto snapped, rolling my ankle. I fell just as something cut past my ear. The man beside me caught me falling and we both went down together. The eruption of the second blast came right on top of the first and started everyone running. Bodies were charging in every direction and then, the next thing I knew, a gun was shoved in my face.”
“Did you ever make it to the medical examiner’s?” I ask.
“No, after the shooting I followed you to the police station.”
“And where did you get the gun?”
“This?” she says, drawing back the weapon. In the rearview mirror, I watch as she twists the barrel and a short red snout sticks out.
“A stave of lipstick, really?”
“Will you help me?” she asks, innocently.
“Help you what exactly?”
“Find out what’s going on, what’s the connection between Jennifer’s suicide, her friend’s disappearance, and Vance’s murder.”
“That was already my intention,” I tell her. But something in what Natalie LaChance had said gave me a better idea of where to start.