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SNEAK PEEK And The Devil Walks Away

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PROLOGUE

Thursday, Sept. 19th

A HALF-ROTTED STAIR riser creaked under Helen Lipscomb’s foot, nearly snapping in two and sending a crackling sound throughout the stairwell. She paused, holding her breath and straining to listen for any indication someone had heard her. After a minute went by, she began breathing again and, even more carefully this time, resumed creeping upward.

She had no doubt several of the apartments in the building were occupied, but in this part of Kansas City it was probably common for people to sleep until well in the afternoon, in most cases not crawling out of their beds until the sun dipped below the horizon. And anyone who did happen to be awake no doubt followed the dictum that kept most inner-city residents alive: if it’s not your business, ignore it.

After several more seconds of cautious treading, Helen made it out of the stairwell and to the door of the targeted apartment. The walls practically sagged with the baked-in smells of overcooked food, human waste, despair and just plain old rot. The front door to 5B looked about as scabby and dented in as most of the others she’d passed. Helen figured the person residing behind the eyesore liked it that way.

Less notice from anyone.

Fewer prying eyes.

She paused to wipe sweat off her forehead. Climbing five flights of stairs wasn’t the main problem, as she’d always kept herself in good shape. But doing so on a mid-September day, with the old building lacking any modern ventilation, was another matter.

The urge to remove the light cotton jacket was strong, but she kept it on. No sense announcing to anyone who happened to walk by that she was armed.

Helen only hoped the guy was home, that the address she’d found in Toni’s house was legit. Or at least it meant what Helen thought it did.

She proceeded cautiously. With no one to observe, Helen crept up to the door, nestling as close as possible, and lightly placed an ear against it. The panel itself was just as grimy and dirt-smeared as all the other doors in this building.

She waited several seconds but could detect nothing. True, the building looked as if it had been built eighty or ninety years ago, and back then doors and walls came with a solidity modern construction lacked, but one could easily imagine that over time various breeds of termites, rats and other burrowing animals had worn away at the structure. Even so, hearing no signs of life, let alone movement, Helen took a small leather bag out of her jacket pocket and began working on the lock, praying the door had never been outfitted with a dead bolt.

Two years earlier, she would have done almost anything rather than illegally enter a suspect’s residence. Back then, she’d held almost a reverence for the system, even when it got in the way. That reverence, however, along with several other rock-ribbed principles, had vanished at some point in the last twenty-four months.

After several minutes of effort, not being an expert picklock after all, the door swung open. Pausing again to wipe sweat off her forehead, Helen’s hands felt slick, slightly grimy. The first order of business once back at the hotel would be a long, hot shower.

Still not entirely sure the apartment was vacant, Helen eased the door open. She leaned forward and glanced around the edge, holding her breath against any creaking hinges or other slight disturbance.

Her nose crinkled. The various effluvia from the hallway were even stronger here. Maybe because of the shut, bolted windows, or maybe the tenant was a lousier housekeeper than most bachelors. Either way, she frowned at the assaulting stenches mingling in the living room. Then she took another breath, and a much more prevalent odor hit her.

Helen’s stomach clenched. Her hands trembled.

The living room contained only one piece of furniture: a ratty, lime green sofa with the springs poking through the bottom. Off to the side of the sofa lay a couple of cotton-ticking mattresses (for overnight guests?) splotched with yellow, green and brown smears. Helen instantly shut her mind off from wondering what the stains came from. A battered, boxwood end table held a TV at least twenty years old.

That lingering odor she’d encountered called out to her.

Helen would have loved to grab a Kleenex, tear it in half and use them to block out the smells. Unfortunately, unsure of exactly what awaited her, she’d left her purse in the trunk of the rental car in a parking garage about five blocks away. Therefore, with no choice but to open her mouth wider and breathe through it, she turned to the right and headed down the apartment’s single hallway.

The first door to the right was closed, though not all the way shut. Helen nudged it with a foot, waited a second, then opened the door all the way and walked in, using her elbow to click on the light switch.

A filth-ridden bathroom. The urine-stained toilet seat was up; rust stains marred the porcelain of the curtain-less bathtub; and black, oily smears speckled the sink and faucet.

The room was small enough to see no one was hiding in there. Even the yellow, mildewed shower curtain hung half off its rod, clearly indicating no one hiding in the squalid tub. Helen elbowed the light off, then stepped back in the hall and moved to the door opposite the bathroom.

Going through the same cautious procedure in the next room, she didn’t bother with the light switch. As the door creaked open, it was obvious this was the apartment’s single bedroom. And even before crossing the threshold, her nose indicated she’d discovered the object of her search.

The stench of voided bowels and kidneys mixed with the smell of flesh, heated in the unventilated room.

It wasn’t the fulsome odor it would eventually become, but it was enough for someone like Helen, attuned through years of experience to the sensations of death, to assume she’d reached the end of the line.

Or at least, of this part of it.

She was only half right.

She found what she’d expected to, but not who.

Dim, late morning light filtered its way through the half-opened blinds, providing enough illumination to make out the still, naked form stretched across the cheap, fold-out bed, and enough for Helen, even from the doorway, to recognize it as female.

She knew the truth now, but had to move closer to see for herself. When she did so, Helen struggled not to look away from the body.

She’d been with this woman just a few short hours before, had sat and talked with her, even semi-argued with her. They’d made a deal, practically shook hands on it, but it looked as if the dead woman had tried to renege on that deal.

“Did he make you a better offer?” Helen asked the room. “And why did you even for a minute think he’d honor it?”

The final work had been done with either hands or some sort of strap, the bulging eyes and distended tongue showed that, but there had been a fight here, for sure. The woman’s waist was a mess of ugly splotches, black, blue and green. Scratches ran across the face and one arm rested at such an angle as to suggest a break. Even now, only a few hours into the process, the eyes, though filmed over, told a story of struggle, fear, and ultimately, surrender to the inevitable.

Okay, then. Not the intended person she’d come here to question.

Clearly, Helen’s job had just become a whole lot more complicated.

Helen hesitated turning on the bedroom light, not wanting to disturb the scene in any way but needing more light if only to check if any life remained in the woman’s body. Wasted effort, perhaps, but instructors had drilled into her years ago that you had to make sure.

A slight step sounded behind her. Helen whirled to glimpse a burly male form hurtling down the hall toward her. Grimacing, she realized the front door was left hanging open, a sure giveaway someone had entered the apartment. Helen dug into her jacket pocket, but the man came on too fast and barreled into her before she could pull out the handgun nestled there.

With his weight pushing forward, the two of them staggered back into a corner, Helen’s head cracking against the wall. Glancing down, she caught sight of a glint of silver in the room’s weak light. Before any possible reaction, a thin, burning line arced across her abdomen.

Helen gasped at the pain but worked to keep focused on the business at hand. With every ounce of energy left, she pulled her weapon out and swung it in a roundhouse motion against the side of the assailant’s head.

The man grunted and shuffled backward. Inhaling a deep breath, curbing pulsating pain, she tried to make out his features: long, greasy, black hair that covered most of his face. With the stranger now framed in the doorway, Helen had the microsecond necessary to level her weapon, but before she could do more he whipped back out of the room and pounded down the hall.

Helen staggered into the hall, ready to pursue, but the now-searing wound changed her mind. She didn’t want to take a chance on losing any more blood than necessary and wasn’t sure how agile she’d be in a chase anyway.

With the stranger heading down the stairs and out of the building, she turned back to the corpse lying on the bed. After the scuffle with the unknown assailant, Helen figured merely turning on the light wouldn’t contaminate the crime scene any more than it already had been, so she used an elbow to flick the switch. The pasty, 25-watt bulb overhead flickering on, provided a good look at the body.

Oh yeah, it was really in the fan now.

Moving out of the room and into the once-again empty apartment, Helen stepped out into the hall and dug her cell phone out of the little holster attached to her belt, kept there so it wouldn’t be even momentarily lost in such encounters as she’d just had.

It was a habit left over from former days as a legitimate detective, and for a moment she had to close her eyes, a physical manifestation of shutting out recollections from the past. It had been two years since she’d come upon a dead victim, or fought with a suspect. The flood of memories that suddenly surged through overwhelmed her.

She considered, briefly, whether her employer would approve of what she planned to do next, then decided it didn’t much matter. Even though she’d left that former life far behind, Helen still felt some obligation to the brotherhood she’d once been a part of.

Helen walked through the front room, then out of the apartment, before dialing 911.

 

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