Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  Jaine sat upright, a chill roughening her bare skin. “She isn’t answering? How long have you been trying to call?”

  “Since eight, I guess. About three hours.” Cheryl suddenly got it, and said, “Oh, God.”

  Sam was out of bed, pulling on his pants. “Who?” he asked sharply, and turned on his cell phone.

  “Luna,” Jaine answered, her throat tight. “Listen, Cheryl, maybe it’s nothing. Maybe she went to church, or out to breakfast with Shamal. Maybe she’s with him. I’ll check and have her call you when I find her. Okay?”

  Sam punched out numbers on the cell phone as he pulled a clean shirt out of the closet and shrugged into it. Carrying his socks and shoes, he left the bedroom, talking so quietly into the little phone she couldn’t hear what he was saying.

  To Cheryl she said, “Sam’s calling some people. He’ll find her.” She hung up without saying goodbye, then vaulted out of bed and began fumbling for her own clothes. She was shaking, the tremors growing worse by the second. Just a few minutes ago she had been so blissed out, and now this awful terror was making her sick; the contrast was almost paralyzing.

  She stumbled into the living room, fastening her jeans, as Sam was going out the door. He was wearing his pistol and his badge. “Wait!” she cried, panicked.

  “No.” He stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “You can’t go.”

  “Yes I can.” Wildly she looked around for her shoes. They were in the bedroom, damn it. “Wait for me!”

  “Jaine.” It was his cop voice. “No. If anything has happened, you’ll only be in the way. You wouldn’t be allowed inside, and it’s too damn hot to sit out in the truck. Go over to T.J.’s and wait there. I’ll call you as soon as I know something.”

  She was still shaking, and now she was crying, too. No wonder he didn’t want her along. She swiped her hand over her face. “P-promise?”

  “I promise.” His expression softened. “Be careful on the way to T.J.’s. And, babe—don’t let anyone in the door, okay?”

  She nodded, feeling worse than useless. “Okay.”

  “I’ll call,” he said again, and was gone.

  Jaine slumped down on the sofa and cried in raw, ragged gulps. She couldn’t do this again; she just couldn’t. Not Luna. She was so young and beautiful, that bastard couldn’t have hurt her. Luna had to be with Shamal; she had been so luminously happy at his sudden turnaround that they were probably spending every spare moment together. Sam would find her. Shamal’s number was unlisted, but cops had ways of getting unlisted numbers. Luna would be with Shamal, and then Jaine would feel silly for panicking this way.

  Finally she stopped crying and mopped her face. She had to get to T.J.’s, to wait for Sam’s call. She started to the bedroom, then abruptly turned back and locked the front door.

  She arrived at T.J.’s twenty minutes later, having done nothing more than brush her teeth and hair and finish dressing. She leaned on the doorbell. “T.J., it’s Jaine! Hurry!”

  She heard running footsteps, the cocker spaniel barking; then the door was wrenched open and T.J.’s worried face swam before her. “What’s wrong?” T.J. asked, jerking her inside the door, but Jaine couldn’t tell her; she couldn’t get the words out. Still barking hysterically, the cocker spaniel, Trilby, jumped up on their legs.

  “Trilby, hush!” T.J. said. Her chin trembled, and she swallowed. “Luna?”

  Jaine nodded, still unable to talk. T.J. put her hand over her mouth as awful, gut-wrenching cries tore from her throat, and she fell back against the wall.

  “No, no!” Jaine managed to say, putting her arms around T.J. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” She took a deep breath. “We don’t know yet. Sam’s on his way over there, and he’s going to call here when he knows—”

  “What’s going on?” Galan asked in alarm, stepping into the foyer. A section of the Sunday paper was in his hand. Trilby ran over to him, her little stump of a tail wagging ferociously.

  That damn shaking had started again. Jaine tried to control it. “Luna’s missing. Cheryl hasn’t been able to get her on the phone.”

  “So she’s gone grocery shopping,” Galan said, shrugging.

  T.J. gave him a look of such fury it should have scorched his skin. “He thinks we’re hysterical and Marci was killed by some doper.”

  “That makes a lot more sense than the bunch of you being stalked by a maniac,” he shot back. “Stop dramatizing everything.”

  “If we’re dramatizing it,” Jaine said, “so are the police.” Then she bit her lip. She didn’t want to get in the middle of a domestic dispute. T.J. and Galan had enough trouble without her adding to it.

  Galan shrugged again. “T.J. said you’re marrying a cop, so he’s probably humoring you. Come on, pooch.” He turned and walked back to his den and his newspaper, Trilby scampering around his feet.

  “Forget him,” T.J. said. “Tell me what happened.”

  Jaine related what Cheryl had said and the time frame. T.J. glanced at the clock; it was now just afternoon . “Four hours, at least. She isn’t grocery shopping. Has anyone called Shamal?”

  “His number’s unlisted, but Sam will take care of it.”

  They went into the kitchen, where T.J. had been reading. Her open book lay in the alcove. T.J. put on a pot of coffee. They were each on their second cup, the cordless phone at T.J.’s elbow, when it finally rang. She snatched it up. “Sam?”

  She listened for a moment, and watching her face, Jaine felt the hope die out of her. T.J. looked stunned, all color draining from her. Her lips moved, but no sound emerged.

  Jaine grabbed the phone. “Sam? Tell me.”

  His voice was heavy. “Baby, I’m sorry It looks like it happened last night, maybe as soon as she got home from the funeral.”

  T.J. laid her head on the table, weeping. Jaine reached to touch her shoulder, trying to offer comfort, but she could feel herself folding in, giving in to the grief, and she didn’t know if she had any comfort to offer.

  “Stay there,” Sam said. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be there when I can get free. This isn’t my jurisdiction, but we’re all putting our heads together. It may be several hours, but don’t go anywhere,” he repeated.

  “Okay,” Jaine whispered, and hung up.

  Galan came to the door and stood hovering, staring at T.J. as if he hoped she was still overreacting, but something in his face said that this time he knew better. He was pale. “What?” he croaked.

  “That was Sam,” Jaine said. “Luna’s dead.” Then her fragile control broke, and it was a long time before she could do anything except weep and hold on to T.J.

  It was sunset before Sam arrived. He looked tired and angry He introduced himself to Galan, because neither Jaine nor T.J. thought to.

  “You were at the funeral,” Galan said suddenly, his gaze sharpening.

  Sam nodded. “A Sterling Heights detective was, too. We hoped we could spot him, but he’s either too slick or he wasn’t there.”

  Galan glanced at his wife. T.J. was sitting quietly, absently stroking the black-and-white cocker spaniel. Yesterday Galan’s gaze had been remote, but there was nothing remote about the way he was watching her now. “Someone’s really after them. It’s so damn hard to believe.”

  “Believe it,” Sam said briefly, his guts twisting with fury as he remembered what had been done to Luna. She had suffered the same vicious, personal attack, her face battered beyond recognition, the multiple stab wounds, the sexual abuse. Unlike Marci, she had still been alive when he stabbed her; the apartment floor was awash in blood. Her clothes had also been shredded, just like Jaine’s. When he thought how close Jaine had come to dying, what she would have suffered if she had been at home on Wednesday night, he could barely contain his rage.

  “Did you get in touch with her parents?” Jaine asked hoarsely. They lived in Toledo, so they weren’t far away.

  “Yes, they’re already here,” Sam said. He sat down and put his arms around her, cradlin
g her head on his shoulder.

  His pager beeped. He reached for his belt and silenced it, then glanced at the number and cursed, rubbing his face. “I have to go.”

  “Jaine can stay here,” T.J. said, before he could ask.

  “I don’t have any clothes,” Jaine said, but she wasn’t protesting, just stating a problem.

  “I’ll drive you home,” Galan said. “T.J. will go, too. You can pack whatever you need, stay as long as you want.”

  Sam nodded in approval. “I’ll call,” he said as he went out the door.

  Corin rocked back and forth. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep. He hummed to himself, the way he had done when he was little, but the magic song didn’t work. He wondered when it had stopped working. He didn’t remember.

  The bitch in red was dead. Mother was so pleased. Two down and two to go.

  He felt good. For the first time in his life, he was pleasing Mother. Nothing he had ever done before had been good enough for her because he had always been flawed, no matter how hard she tried to make him perfect. He was doing this right, though; she was very pleased. He was ridding the world of the whoring bitches, one by one by one. No. Too many “ones.” He hadn’t done three yet. He had tried, but one hadn’t been at home.

  He remembered seeing her at the funeral, though. She had laughed. Or was it the other one? He felt confused, because the faces kept swimming in his memory.

  One shouldn’t laugh at funerals. It was very hurtful to the bereaved.

  But which one had laughed? Why couldn’t he remember?

  It didn’t matter, he thought to himself, and felt better. They both had to die, and then it wouldn’t matter which one had laughed, or which one was “Ms. C.” It wouldn’t matter, because finally—finally—Mother would be happy and she would never, never hurt him again.


  On Monday morning, Sam sat in the Warren P. D. with his head propped on his hands, wading through the Hammerstead files again and again. The NCIC computers hadn’t given them a hit on any of the names, so he and Bernsen were simply reading and rereading, looking for something that would click in their heads and give them the clue they needed.

  It was there; Sam knew it was. They just hadn’t found it yet. He suspected he already knew what it was, because of that nagging gut feeling he had missed something. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was there, and sooner or later the bell would chime. He just hoped it was sooner, like in the next minute.

  This guy hated women. He wouldn’t get along with them, wouldn’t like working with them. There might be a note in his file about a complaint lodged by someone, maybe even a harassment charge. Something like that should have jumped out at them on the first once-over, but maybe the complaint had been worded in such a way that the charge wasn’t actually spelled out.

  Neither Jaine nor T.J. was working today. They were still together, though they had moved from T.J.’s house to Shelley’s, along with that yappy little cocker spaniel that sounded the alarm at any kind of intrusion, whether it was a bird on the patio or someone coming up the walk. He had been afraid Jaine would want to spend the day at home, since her new alarm system had been installed—under the eagle eye of Mrs. Kulavich, who was taking her guardian duties seriously—on Saturday while they were attending Marci’s funeral. An alarm system was fine, but it wouldn’t stop a determined killer.

  But Jaine hadn’t wanted to be alone. She and T.J. were clinging together, shocked and dazed at what had happened to their tight little circle of friends. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind now that the List was what had triggered the violence, and the area police departments were putting together a task force to coordinate and work the cases, since no two of the friends lived in the same jurisdiction.

  The national news organizations had been all over the story. “Who is killing the Ladies of the List?” one newscaster had intoned. “The Detroit area has been shocked by the violent murders of two of the women who authored the humorous and controversial Mr. Perfect List that took the nation by storm a couple of weeks ago.”

  Reporters were camped outside Hammerstead again, wanting to interview anyone who was acquainted with the two victims. The task force had arranged to get copies of any interview tapes the reporters might make, in case their guy gave in to his ego and wanted to see himself on national television, mourning his two “friends.”

  Reporters had also been at Jaine’s house, but left when they discovered no one was at home. He imagined they had checked out T.J.’s, too, which was why he had called Shelley and told her to ask Jaine and T.J. to spend the day with her. Shelley had been more than glad to comply. He figured that the snoops would talk to people who knew people and eventually find Shelley, but for today at least Jaine and T.J. weren’t being bothered.

  Sam rubbed his eyes. He had gotten maybe two hours sleep. The page last night had been to the scene of another homicide, a teenage boy. That had quickly wrapped up with the arrest of the kid’s new girlfriend’s ex, who had taken it personally that the kid had told him to eat shit and die. The paperwork, however, was always a bitch.

  Where was the report on the shoe tread they had found in Jaine’s house? Getting an answer usually didn’t take this long. He searched his desk, but no one had laid it there in his absence. Maybe it had gone to Bernsen, since they had cross-referenced each other on all the paperwork. Before Luna’s death, not everyone had been convinced the break-in at Jaine’s house had anything to do with Marci’s murder, but he and Bernsen had been. Now, of course, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind.

  He called Roger. “Did the report on that shoe tread come to you?”

  “Haven’t seen it. You mean you don’t have it yet?”

  “Not yet. The lab must have lost it. I’ll shoot them another request.” Damn it, he thought as he hung up. The one thing they didn’t need was a delay. Maybe the shoe print wasn’t important, but maybe the shoe was a rare one, so unusual that someone at Hammerstead would say, “Oh, yeah, so-and-so has a pair. Paid a fortune for them.”

  He went back to the files, frustrated almost to the point of breaking something. It was right here under his nose; he knew it. All he had to do was figure it out.

  Galan left work early. Yesterday’s events had left him so shaken he couldn’t concentrate. All he wanted was to pick up T.J. at Jaine’s sister’s house and take her home where he could watch over her.

  He didn’t know how they had lost touch with each other. No—he knew, all right. The innocent flirting at work with Xandrea Conaway had started to seem important, and maybe it had never been so innocent. When had he started comparing everything T.J., and everything she said and did, to Xandrea, who was always dressed up and never nagged?

  Of course T.J. wasn’t dressed up at home, he realized. Neither was he. That was what homes were for, relaxing and being comfortable. So what if she complained when he didn’t take out the garbage? He complained if she left her makeup scattered all over the vanity. People who lived together inevitably got on each other’s nerves sometimes. That was part of being married.

  He had loved T.J. since he was fourteen years old. How had he lost sight of that, and of what they had together? Why had it taken the terror of realizing a killer actually was stalking T.J. and her friends for him to realize it would kill him to lose her?

  He didn’t know how he could make it up to her. He didn’t know if she would even let him. For the past week or so, since she had guessed he was infatuated with Xandrea, she had pulled away from him. Maybe she believed he’d actually been unfaithful to her, though he had never let the situation between him and Xandrea get so far out of hand. They had kissed, yes, but nothing more.

  He tried to imagine how he would feel if another man kissed T.J., and felt sick to his stomach. Maybe kisses weren’t so forgivable.

  He would crawl on his belly to her if she would smile at him again like he mattered to her.

  Jaine’s sister lived in a big, two-story Colonial in St. C
lair Shores. The doors were down on the triple-bay garage, but Sam Donovan’s red muscle-truck was parked in the driveway. He parked beside it and went up the curving walk to the double front doors, where he rang the bell and waited.

  Donovan answered the door. Galan noticed Sam was still wearing his pistol. If he had one, he thought, he would probably wear it too, legal or not.

  “How are they?” he asked softly, stepping inside.

  “Tired. Still in shock. Shelley said they slept off and on all day, so I guess they didn’t get much sleep last night.”

  Galan shook his head. “They sat up talking most of the night. Funny; they didn’t talk much about the bastard who did this, or how close Jaine came the other night when he broke into her house. They just talked about Luna and Marci.”

  “It’s like losing two family members so close together. It’ll take them a while to recover from this.” Sam dealt with grief on a regular basis; he knew Jaine would recover, because that kick-ass spirit of hers just wouldn’t stay down, but he also knew it could take weeks, maybe even months, before the shadow of pain left her eyes.

  In part of the house, things were normal. Shelley’s husband, Al, watched television. Their teenage daughter, Stefanie, was upstairs on the phone, while eleven-year-old Nicholas played video games on the computer. The women had gathered in the kitchen—why was it always the kitchen?—to talk and drink diet sodas and eat whatever comfort food Shelley had on hand.

  The ravages of grief had left both Jaine and T.J. pale, but they were dry-eyed. T.J. looked startled to see her husband.

  “What are you doing here?” She didn’t sound particularly glad to see him.

  “I wanted to be with you,” he replied. “I know you’re tired, so I didn’t want you to have to wait until midnight to go home. Not to mention Shelley and her family probably go to bed a lot earlier than that.”

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