Now You See Her by Linda Howard


  “Very good, sir.”

  The detectives had given both paintings back to her, and Edward stored them up front with him. The paintings startled him enough that he actually looked taken aback for a moment, then his expression smoothed out and he handled them as matter-of-factly as if they had been landscapes.

  When they were seated, Richard reached for Sweeney’s hand and twined his fingers with hers. “You’re cold,” he said.

  “I was scared.” She squeezed his hand. “This wasn’t as bad as the other episodes. As long as they kept the coffee coming, I managed.”

  “If you had called me immediately, a lot of this could have been avoided.”

  “On the other hand, once they witnessed my prowess at Jeopardy!, they were a lot more inclined to believe me.”

  He gave her a puzzled look. “Jeopardy!?”

  “One of my new skills. I’ll show you someday.”

  Their entwined hands were resting on her right thigh. His knuckles rubbed lightly back and forth.

  “Candra’s parents and some of their friends are at the house,” he said. “We’ve settled on the arrangements for the service—they want her buried close to where they live—but they’re ready to go back to the hotel. I’ll have Edward drive them, and I’ll grab a change of clothes then take a taxi to your place.”

  If she were noble, she thought, she would tell him she knew he had a lot to do and she would be perfectly all right by herself. She must not be the least bit noble, because she was tired of facing the nights by herself and she wanted him with her.

  Besides, Richard’s comment that Candra’s killer could now know about the painting hadn’t gone unnoticed. Part of her couldn’t believe she was in any danger, but the logical part of her pointed out it would be smarter not to take any unnecessary chances. She slept very soundly; she might not hear anyone breaking into the apartment, unless they crashed, movie-style, through the window beside her bed. After being awake all the night before, she was so exhausted now even a crashing window might not wake her.

  As if he followed her thoughts, the way he so often did, Richard said, “Did you get any sleep today?”

  “No. Did you?”

  “I caught a couple of hours after lunch.”

  She envied him both the nap and his stamina; he looked untouched by fatigue, as alert as he always was.

  “You can sleep tonight,” he promised softly.

  She squeezed his hand and pitched her voice low enough that Edward couldn’t hear. “Not all night, I hope.”

  “I think I can guarantee that.” He squeezed her hand in return, and Sweeney sat in contented silence for the rest of the drive.

  * * *

  A tiny Italian restaurant was located across the street and several doors down from Sweeney’s apartment building. The restaurant was popular in the neighborhood, with a steady stream of nearby residents stopping by for takeout. Kai managed to snag a table by the window, seating himself so he could see anyone entering the apartment building.

  Letting himself get involved in the plan to kill Candra had been partly impulse, because she’d been such a bitch and was planning to fire him anyway. The biggest consideration, however, had been the money. A hundred thousand dollars wasn’t a lot of money to some people, and it was a hell of a lot less than the million Candra had asked for in blackmail, but it would mean the difference between several years more spent taking penny-ante jobs and supplementing his income with infrequent modeling gigs for sleazy underwear catalogs, which usually included having to fuck some bony, middle-aged hag who thought she was hot because she wielded a lot of power over young men who needed the jobs she provided.

  With a hundred thou, he could quit work, finish his art classes, and begin making a name for himself with his paintings. Kai had no doubt he was talented. He knew his stuff was a lot better than most of the crap he had helped sell at the gallery, and now he would be backed by a very influential name that would get him displayed in the most prestigious gallery in the city. He wasn’t going to start low and gradually increase his prices; he was going to ask a small fucking fortune right from the beginning; there were a lot of rich fools who would buy paintings carrying a high sticker just because they liked the idea that not everyone could afford to buy them.

  Everything would be perfect, if it weren’t for that damn painting of Sweeney’s.

  He regretted that. He liked Sweeney. She was funny and honest, and she had never looked at him as if he were nothing but a piece of meat. She was also genuinely talented, with a knack for realism that meant any portrait she painted would be a faithful re-creation of the subject. Too bad she’d turned out to be a fucking psychic, too.

  So he waited, watching for her to come home. Unlike a certain other party, who wasn’t the most realistic person he’d ever met, he didn’t expect the cops to book her on the basis of that painting. They weren’t idiots; without physical evidence at the scene to back it up, they’d have a hard time convincing any D.A. to take the case to court. On the other hand, if she managed to convince them she was for real, they would be checking with her every day to see if she had finished the damn thing yet. Just getting rid of the painting wouldn’t be enough; its existence didn’t matter, just whether or not the other face was revealed. Sweeney would recognize it instantly, and then all hell would break loose.

  That couldn’t be allowed to happen.

  Getting into her apartment had been easy. He had watched until the cops arrived; then after they took her away, he waited for his chance and slipped in with a crowd of people returning home from work, while the dumb-ass super was busy watching some dumb-ass game show and seldom looked up.

  He took his time checking out the building. There wasn’t a hallway window on Sweeney’s floor that opened onto the fire escape, but there was such an access on the floor below hers. After ascertaining that, he took the elevator to the floor above Sweeney’s, just in case anyone noticed at what floor he got off, then bounded down the stairs to her floor.

  Getting into her apartment hadn’t been easy, because she had locked both dead bolts. He listened at her neighbor’s door, and when he didn’t hear any noise from inside, he risked ringing the doorbell. Nothing, and these people hadn’t bothered with the dead bolt, trusting in the doorknob lock, which took him about ten seconds to open.

  He slipped inside, and stood listening for a moment to make certain no one was in the shower or something like that. Reassured that the apartment was empty, though it might not be for much longer, he turned the flimsy little lock on the doorknob just in case the tenant showed up before Kai did what needed doing.

  He had gone to a tiny bedroom on the side adjoining Sweeney’s apartment and climbed out the window onto the fire escape. Crouching beside one of the huge windows in her studio, he used a glass cutter to cut a hole in the window right next to the lock. Just in case anyone noticed him, he pretended to do some work in the fire escape, checking the joints and shit like that.

  The lock on the window was stuck. Using his knife, he jimmied it open. Then he lowered the fire escape ladder down to the next level and left it. Someone might notice, but since it didn’t go down to street level no one would be very alarmed.

  Once everything was set, he slipped back into the neighboring apartment and left as unobtrusively as he had entered. Then all he had to do was wait for Sweeney to come home.

  He flirted with the waitress in the little restaurant, pretended to read a newspaper, dawdled over his pasta, and then ordered a dessert and coffee. His patience was rewarded a little after nine, when Richard Worth’s Mercedes rolled to a smooth stop outside the apartment building and both Sweeney and Richard got out. Richard took two canvases from the front seat and went inside with Sweeney. A few minutes later, he came out alone, and without the canvases.

  Kai paid his bill and left the waitress with both a good tip and a slow, wicked smile that did more for her self-esteem than a good haircut. Then he crossed the street and walked around the block until he could see
the big corner windows of Sweeney’s studio. The lights came on in there, but the angle was too acute for him to see what she was doing. Then the lights went out again; she wasn’t working on the painting. That was good.

  It was still too early for her to go to bed, but he decided to get back into the building while he could. He had to wait about twenty minutes before a young couple entered the building, and he caught the door before it could close. The super glanced around when he heard the buzzer, but saw the young couple, and turned back to his television without seeing Kai.

  Everything went smooth as silk. He went up to the roof and sat patiently, watching the lights and the traffic, listening to the car horns honking and the sirens blaring, distant voices carrying up to him. The city was never silent, never still. He loved the energy of it. The longer he waited, the less likely he was to run into trouble. People would be sleeping in their beds, peaceful and secure, and if anyone happened to wake up when he lowered the sections of fire escape ladders between the floors, so he could work his way down to the street, they would get to the window too late to see him.

  They would sure as hell be too late to help Sweeney.

  CHAPTER

  TWENTY-ONE

  Sweeney was so tired she could barely think, but a hot shower revived her enough that she was able to concentrate on feeding herself. After hot soup and half a peanut butter sandwich, she felt almost human—almost. Only the fact that she was waiting for Richard to return kept her awake. She thought about relaxing on the couch until he arrived, but knew if she did she would be down for the count and might not even hear the doorbell.

  She wandered into the studio, not bothering to turn on any lights. With the huge windows, enough light from streetlights, neon signs, and other buildings poured into the room to make it easy to negotiate the clutter. She strolled around the room, pausing before some canvases, touching others, like a mother putting her children to bed at night. She stopped in front of the painting of Candra, positioned on an easel, and stared at it for a long time. She tried to get a sense of the killer; what had he been thinking, standing over Candra like that? What kind of man was he, to gloat over a woman’s violent death?

  She had intuitively known other things about the painting, such as how the shoes should look, but she felt as if she were hitting a brick wall when she tried to grasp the essence of the killer. Something was there, on the other side of the wall, but she couldn’t reach it.

  Perhaps she would never finish the painting, she thought. Perhaps she could trance-paint only those people she knew, whose images were already in her memory bank. If the killer was a stranger, he might forever remain so.

  Richard returned in little more than an hour. He dropped a small bag on the floor and turned to lock the door. Sweeney stood motionless, staring at him. He had changed from his suit into jeans and a black T-shirt, and Sweeney instantly forgot about being tired as she took in every detail. This was how she had always seen him in her mind’s eye, without the disguise of an expensive suit. The short tight sleeves clung to his muscled arms, his jaw was shadowed with beard stubble, and he was the toughest, sexiest-looking man she had ever seen.

  “That’s it,” she muttered, a little distracted as she framed the sketch in her mind. “I need to paint you just like this.”

  She looked around as if searching for her sketch pad. She had actually taken two steps toward the studio when he hooked an arm around her from behind and lifted her off her feet, drawing her back against him. “Not tonight, sweetie. It’s bedtime for you.” He began carrying her toward the bedroom.

  Maybe it was because his mouth was so close to her ear. Maybe something finally clicked in her brain. She twisted her head to stare up at him. “You called me ‘sweetie,’” she accused.

  He lifted his eyebrows. “Of course. What did you think I was calling you?”

  “My name. Sweeney.”

  He planted a quick kiss on her sulky mouth. “I told you, I refuse to call the woman I’m sleeping with by her last name. That goes double for the woman I love. If you don’t like ‘sweetie,’ we’ll think of something else.”

  He said it so smoothly, and she was so tired, that it almost slipped by. “I guess ‘sweetie’ is okay,” she began to mumble, then went rigid in his arms. He almost dropped her. He stopped, set her down, then turned her so she was facing him and wrapped both arms around her, lifting her again.

  She put her hands on his shoulders to brace herself. “Did you say you love me, or was that just something to throw into the conversation?”

  “No, I definitely said it.”

  This was a defining moment in her life. After thirty-one years of living she had finally fallen in love, and not with any ordinary guy. No, she had fallen head over heels for a tough, sexy rich guy, and he had just told her he loved her. No one else in her life had ever said those words to her. She felt as if they should be doing something romantic and dramatic, like drinking champagne and shooting off fireworks, to mark the moment.

  “Oh,” she said, and blinked sleepily at him. “I love you, too.”

  “I know,” he said, and gently kissed her. He set her on her feet beside the bed and undressed her as if she were a child. She wished she had a sexy nightgown to put on for him, but all she owned was flannel pajamas. With him in bed beside her, she wouldn’t need the pajamas to keep her warm.

  He put her between the sheets and stripped off his own clothes, then got into bed beside her. She wished she had a king-size bed, so he would be more comfortable. Hers was a queen, but she suspected his feet hung off the end.

  They turned toward each other like a magnet and steel, the force irresistible. He stroked her breasts, making her nipples tingle and her breath shorten. “You need to sleep,” he muttered, but he was rock hard.

  She closed her hand around his erection, stroking him with the same slow touch he was using on her breasts. “I need you more,” she said.

  He put on a condom and rolled on top of her. Sweeney spread her legs, taking him between them. He prodded the entrance to her body, his shaft thick and hot.

  Sweeney didn’t wait, couldn’t wait. She clasped her legs around his and lifted her hips so that he slipped inside her.

  Pleasure seemed to spread smoothly through her body, without the sharpness and urgency of the night before. His strokes were slow and deep, as if he wanted to savor every inch of her. She found the rhythm and joined him in it, and despite the lack of urgency, it seemed only moments before the heat and friction grew to intolerable levels. She clung to him, her nails digging into his back, small cries breaking from her throat with each move he made into her. He hooked his arms under her legs, bending over her with his weight braced on his hands, holding her legs spread wide so that he had full access to her and she could control neither the speed nor the depth of his thrusts. She felt as if he went straight into the heart of her, and she climaxed on the third deep stroke. He held himself there and shuddered violently as his own release took him apart.

  Sweeney dozed, but roused a little when he carefully withdrew from her and rolled out of bed.

  “Where are you going?” she murmured, reaching out to caress his back.

  “To the bathroom, to get my bag, and to turn out the lights,” he replied, and the answer seemed so prosaic she chuckled, turning her face into the pillow as lassitude claimed her again.

  Still, she wasn’t quite asleep when he returned. She went into his arms, shivering a little at the wash of cool air on her bare shoulders despite the heat that surrounded her everywhere below. “Let me wear your T-shirt,” she said sleepily, and he leaned over the side of the bed to pluck it from the floor.

  She sat up and pulled it on, then settled back into his arms. “Okay, now I can sleep.”

  “It’s about time,” he grumbled, but she heard the amusement and physical satisfaction underlying his tone, and she went to sleep feeling more secure than she ever had before.

  She came awake with a jolt, heart hammering, every muscle tense.
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  She couldn’t have been asleep long. She had the sense that very little time had passed, certainly no more than an hour. Something had wakened her, something that made her skin prickle, her reaction much as it would have been had she slept in a cave thousands of years ago and woke to the sound of a tiger prowling at the cave entrance. She listened intently, wondering if the comparison was apt. Was someone in the apartment?

  Her mind replayed the undefined, unfamiliar noise. She hadn’t imagined it. It hadn’t been loud, nothing more than a scrape, a whisper of a sound. Like a footstep. Like a window sliding up. Either of those, or both. Coming from the studio.

  She shook Richard and felt his instant alertness. “I heard something,” she whispered.

  He moved like oiled silk, rolling naked, soundlessly, out of bed. As he stooped down, he motioned for her to join him, holding a finger to his lips to indicate silence, both gestures plainly visible in the colorless light coming through the window.

  She tried to imitate how he moved, without any jumps or jerks that would make noise. She got out of bed without any betraying squeaks from the mattress, only the whisper of the sheet marking her departure. His T-shirt, which had been bunched around her waist, settled down over her hips but did nothing to protect her from the cool night air washing around her bare legs. She noticed the chill and then promptly forgot it, her attention riveted on the open door of the bedroom, expecting at any moment to see a dark, menacing form come through it.

  Richard stooped down to the small bag he had brought, never looking away from the door as he reached inside the bag. When he straightened, light glinted dully on the big weapon in his right hand. With his left, he reached out and tucked her behind him.

  Gripping her wrist to make sure she stayed with him, and behind him, he glided soundlessly to a position behind the door, but not so close that it would hit him if someone shoved it completely open. Then they waited.

  She couldn’t hear him breathing, but her own breath seemed to echo in her ears and surely her heart was pounding hard enough to be audible. Carefully she breathed through her mouth, to eliminate even that small sound. And she listened.

 
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