Nickie Savage stared at two cigarette butts, a gum wrapper and a discarded map of Nevada. Cabs weren’t any cleaner in Vegas than in upstate New York. With her spinning head between her legs, she reminded herself to breathe.
Duncan’s hand rested in the middle of her back. The warmth was more than literal and was a little like walking into a heated home after a cold New York evening. She was grateful, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.
He called to the front of the cab in his almost-baritone voice. “It’s not what it looks like.”
What’s not what it—oh, shit. She lifted her head and met the driver’s cheesy smile in the rearview mirror. Giving him the most intimidating detective’s glare she could come up with, she tried to get him to look away and keep his eyes on the road.
She wasn’t petty and she wasn’t shallow, but besides the driver, Duncan was the easiest target and she needed to yell at someone. Slowly lifting her head, she groaned, “Don’t think I don’t know why you came along. My captain may approve you as a civilian consultant, but this is federal. I won’t make that kind of request to the FBI.”
He’d already talked her into flying first class. What if the guys at the station back home found out? Prissy female detective who’s too good to ride coach? She’d never live it down. Duncan convinced her it was some sort of compromise to taking his private plane.
He lifted a brow before she could grunt anything else in his direction.
Duncan frigging Reed.
Upstate New York called him the local boy who turned into The Taste of L.A. The nickname followed him all the way to, well, L.A. Looking at him, she had to agree. Dark hair, darker eyes, sharp features. Calling the two of them opposites would be an understatement. Yet, somehow they were a couple.
His eyes, steady and lifeless, surveyed her. Most people thought of them as cold and removed. She knew better and didn’t know what to do about that.
She opened her mouth, closed it again and decided instead to focus on her appointment at Vegas Metro. Slinging one of her black leather boots on her knee, she dangled a wrist over her shin. She pressed her knuckles against her jaw, turned her chin until she heard a crack, then did the same to the other side.
Her orders were clear. A home in a small town outside of Vegas had been abandoned. In the basement, squatters found two decomposed bodies along with some beds and… cages. It must be bad if squatters reported it.
Reasonable suspicion said the scene related to a mass kidnapping and the forced prostitution of girls in their early teens. Since she was the one who traced the group from New York to Nevada, she wanted to know exactly what ‘reasonable suspicion’ meant. The feds called her in, citing her involvement with a takedown that resulted in the rescue of some of the girls and the arrest of a handful of the johns and perps.
There was much they still didn’t know.
Covering her mouth with her hand, she dropped her head back down. “I’ll be all right,” she mumbled from between her knees, trying not to inhale the scent of cigarettes and stale gum. “I don’t know my schedule,” she said to Duncan. “I might not have time for you.”
His hand returned to the center of her back. “I have work. I’m meeting with Johnny Lyons.”
She knew why he was here, and it wasn’t to meet with Johnny Lyons. Johnny Lyons? Unbelievable. She was sleeping with someone who was going to meet with Emmy Award-winner Johnny Lyons.
Meeting with Lyons may have been part of it, but it was her reaction to the call from the feds that made Duncan tag along. Her heart rate began to rise just thinking about it.
He came to keep an eye on her. To play watchdog. And if she was fair about it, because he cared. It was damned embarrassing. She was a cop, a detective. She didn’t want or need him with her on a case… especially a case overseen by the FBI.
“Call me when you’re done,” he said in her ear. “I shouldn’t be long at the Lyons’. I have enough projects to last a few days.”
Projects as in painting. He carried his full-sized easel around with him like others did their carry-ons. As the cab driver parked, she sat up and shook her head clear. “I don’t know how long they’re keeping me.”
He got out and walked around, opening her door for her before she had time to gather her briefcase.
“In case you take too long, I sent for my plane,” he said and held out a hand.
They stood between two long rows of palm trees inside the four-story, horseshoe-shaped, mainly glass building that was Vegas Metro. It was easily three times the size of her station in New York.
Briefcase in hand, she balanced on her three-inch heels and turned, giving Duncan her best snarky wink as she left.
* * *
The Las Vegas Police Department hadn’t changed. Clean, open and modernized. She checked in, took the stairs to the top floor and walked the hallway to the captain’s office. It was twice the size of her captain’s. Deluxe cabinetry lined the walls, and shag carpet the color of dark red wine covered the floors. She stood at the opened door and knocked.
Two FBI agents stood to the side of the captain’s desk. The suits and ties weren’t at all practical in this climate. She wasn’t about to dress up for anyone and wore her usual snug slacks and boots. The blouse she chose for the day was a sky blue. On her belt hung her badge, gun, phone and cuffs.
Considering his title, the captain was young. About her age. He was a bigger guy, healthy bigger, not heavy bigger. Black hair, black eyes. He spoke first. “Come in, Savage.” He turned to the agents. “This is Detective Savage.” Not a return introduction or even a handshake. Typical FBI. The feds liked to come in, take over and won’t give anyone else the time of day.
“Savage is the one who came to me several months ago,” the captain continued, “with strong circumstantial evidence pointing to a possible mass kidnapping of young teens.”
Is that what they said around here when they gave a visiting detective a measly three officers as backup for a takedown that needed at least a dozen? It made her feel somewhat better that the captain had to give up his territory to the feds again. So much was about territory in this business.
“As you know, since this went over state lines, we called in your colleagues—” He spoke to the suits as if she wasn’t there. Damned condescending. “—as soon as circumstantial turned into sustainable.”
Sustainable must mean when four girls were rescued from captive prostitution. Or maybe it was the three thugs and six johns who were caught and booked. Her focus now was on the ones who slipped through her fingers. She decided she didn’t mind if she was the only one sitting and sunk into the closest guest chair and slouched comfortably.
The captain must have been done with his briefing, because he finally turned to her. “Thank you, Detective, for coming out on such short notice. I’ll let these gentlemen take it from here.” He lowered into his high-back leather desk chair.
Uncomfortable silence. Was she supposed to stand? Wasn’t going to happen. They still hadn’t had the decency to tell her their names.
Finally, the taller one spoke. “Much of your investigation regarding this matter fell on hunches.”
She hated hunches. If they only knew how much she hated hunches, they wouldn’t say that. Maybe they would. Hunches led to cases that were thrown out in court. Facts. She was all about the facts. But she couldn’t possibly share how she obtained some of the facts regarding the missing girls, or how she tracked them across half the country. How would she explain that her boyfriend had a talent for seeing details others missed?
He continued. “You seem to have instincts on the subject.”
Her spine tightened. It took all of her focus to keep it from straightening, as it wanted to do at that moment. Letting her lids drop to half-closed, she kept eye contact. He hadn’t asked a question.
“Good work, Detective.” And next came the patronizing. “I’m Special Agent Strong and this is Special Agent Lewis. As you know, an abandoned home has been discovered containing a scene in the basement we feel may be connected to the previous case you orchestrated. We apologize if we haven’t been forthcoming with the latest updates regarding the outcomes of that case and appreciate the help you provided the days following the takedown.”
They’d used her, then she never heard from them again. Now, they were sorry? Only because they had to work with her again.
Strong must have sensed her attitude because he elaborated. “One of the johns was sentenced. Six months in county. The others were first timers. The perpetrators haven’t had their day in court yet. Two of them are working with us on a deal and providing valuable information. The girls are home with their families.” And then as a seemed afterthought, he added, “…Thanks to you.”
Her suspicions were on overdrive, and suspicions ranked right up there with hunches. They had their place. Proceed with caution.
He picked up a file from the captain’s desk and handed it to her. “This will get you caught up as we drive out to the location.”
It was thin; it couldn’t be a fraction of the full case file.
* * *
Johnny Lyons’ multimillion-dollar vacation home was set far from the highway. Duncan maneuvered the Mustang convertible rental up the long, winding drive. There were a number of entrances, but the main one was obvious. Brick framed the massive glass double doors. The white stucco that was common in this area covered the outside walls. The sky framed the structure in a brilliant blue, the odd grasses of the arid climate serving as a base. He could have stopped the car where he was, pulled a fresh canvas from his portfolio and painted the house as he sat in the drive.
The mature landscaping told him it wasn’t new construction. Johnny and his new bride didn’t exactly fit the domestic profile of a couple who would have a home built.
Mrs. Lyons came out before he parked. She was watching for him? She wore a shiny gold bathing suit beneath a head-to-toe sheer housecoat with three-inch ice pick heels. It made him think of how Nickie could maneuver in shoes like this as if she wore sneakers. Women.
“Duncan! You’re here,” Bebe squealed. She and Johnny had been beautiful and cooperative subjects for his work. They paid him to paint a three-by-five-foot portrait of their wedding picture. If he remembered correctly, they’d hung it in the great room of their L.A. home.
He leaned over and offered a kiss on each of her cheeks. She smelled of something strongly floral.
Taking his hand, she led him around the side of the grounds. “It’s good to see you, dear. We get so many compliments on our wedding portrait and, of course, we always share your contact information.” She worked around the flagstone stepping bricks like a pro. “An original Duncan Reed portrait in our home. You’re getting quite a reputation.”
It was true. He was fortunate. It seemed he was a fad and understood it would likely wear off as fads tended to do. He ducked under some low-hanging vines covering an arbor that led to the pool area. He’d smelled the chlorine long before they reached the entry. The area was huge, winding around in the shape of a confused hourglass.
Johnny reclined on a lounge chair with a drink in his hand. It was morning. He didn’t get up but offered warm greetings. “Ah, Duncan. Good to see you, friend. What can I have the help get you to drink?”
Duncan waved his hand dismissively yet politely, then offered to shake.
“I hope you didn’t come all the way out here for us. Bebe said you were in the neighborhood.”
“She’s correct,” Duncan answered, and sat on the edge of the closest chair, resting his forearms on his thighs.
Bebe sat in the chair between Johnny and him, close enough to Duncan that he could smell her hairspray.
“How is marriage?” he asked, and reminded himself small talk was a necessary part of his job. Today, he didn’t mind. Johnny and his new bride were actually some of the nicer people he’d worked with.
It seemed marriage suited them. They gazed at each other and smiled. “Well,” Johnny started, “we don’t see much of each other. We’re both in the middle of projects, but we did get the next few days off.” He reached out and slid his hand around her ankle.
Duncan assumed they wanted more work and waited patiently for them to get to it.
Bebe winked at Johnny before turning to fully face Duncan. “I ran into Coral. Coral Francesca. You remember Coral, don’t you, Duncan?”
Uh-oh. He nodded cautiously.
“She showed me a photo on her Smartphone of the picture you did for her with the snake. It’s amazing. I want one.” She placed her hands over her mouth and lifted her shoulders like she’d just told a saucy secret.
He hadn’t expected this. Certainly not from these two. Why hadn’t he expected this? But it was his reaction that was the most startling. Pain. He felt a sense of pain and betrayal. He’d painted nudes before. Time and time again. Yet, he was speechless.
The two of them glanced between each other like they were picking out sexy lingerie.
“I don’t paint nudes anymore.” It surprised him how easily that came out.
Their faces fell as both sets of eyes slowly turned to him. Bebe’s eyes were actually glassing over.
“What are you talking about, Duncan?” Johnny seemed more disappointed than his wife.
He thought of Nickie posing in his barely-blue open shirt with her legs draped over the edge of his settee.
“I… we… don’t expect anything from you, if that’s what’s stopping you.”
His eyes refocused on Bebe’s. He knew what she meant and could hardly believe his ears. “Do you think painting a nude means sex with the artist?”
“No. No, of course not,” she whined. “We just don’t understand. We know you… do that with your subjects.”
A few, yes, but what was happening? He stood. “I’m sorry. You’re good people and a lovely couple. I’ll get together contact information for some excellent recommendations.”
Johnny wrung his hands. Bebe pulled her knees together. He’d embarrassed them. He wasn’t sure what he was thinking or why. And how he hadn’t seen this coming.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and showed himself out.