Steve strolled into The Centennial Nightclub shortly before eleven Friday night and paused inside the doorway to let his eyes adjust to the artificial darkness. Though it was well past nightfall, somehow the combination of drifting cigarette smoke and spare neon lighting always made the interior of the bar seem darker than mere night.
When he could see, he surveyed the room with practiced efficiency. It was virtually empty. Less than half the tables on the floor were occupied and he could only see two couples on the dance floor. Despite it being Friday night and the driving rock pounding from hidden speakers, everyone seemed subdued.
It also explained why there had been no cover charge tonight. There wasn’t a band.
He sighed and strolled up to join the regulars at the right end of the bar.
“Hey, Steven,” Tommy said as Steve climbed onto a bar stool next to him. “How’s it going?” He was only barely slurring his words.
“Tommy,” he nodded. He also greeted the two men on the other side of Tommy. “John. Larry.”
Theirs was a peculiar friendship. The four men saw and talked to each other nearly every day, but never outside The Centennial and never completely sober.
But they were friends.
Fat David was tending bar tonight. He lumbered over, looking bored. “Evening, Steve. The usual?”
Steve nodded. “Kind of slow tonight.”
“Not slow, dead.” Fat David glanced out into the room as though he might have missed a hundred or so patrons sneaking in. He hadn’t. “Been dead all week.”
“Dead as a doornail . . .,” Tommy told the remains of his beer.
Steve watched Fat David expertly assemble an old fashioned for him.
“Folks are afraid,” John said on the other side of Tommy. “The Ripper’s this whole town jumping at its own shadow.”
Steve knew about The Ripper. Who didn’t? For well over a year, a serial killer had been butchering people seemingly at random and getting away with it. Seven were already dead and no one knew when or where he would strike next. And no one seemed to be safe. His victims had been as young as sixteen and as old as sixty-two. Most of the victims had been women, but two had been men and race didn’t seem to be a factor either.
He seemed to be picking his victims truly at random.
The police were baffled and frustrated. Their system involved identifying a criminal’s pattern, then eliminating potential suspects who didn’t fit the pattern. So far, the killer seemed to show no pattern at all. Nothing the police could use as a starting point.
Local media had nicknamed him “The Ripper” because he seemed to prefer disemboweling his victims.
“He got another one last night, I hear.” Fat David set the old fashioned in front of Steve and accepted his money. “Some poor slob pumping gas at the 24-hour Texaco over on Decatur.”
The men nodded gravely. Each swallowed some of their drink, much as some would make the Sign of the Cross.
“I hear he was slit open from here to here . . .” Larry made a gesture covering the length of his chest and abdomen. “And the guy did it right there at the pumps, right out in the open, but nobody saw a damn thing.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Steve told him. “Someone saw something. They just don’t want to get involved.”
“Or maybe they don’t know they saw something,” Tommy agreed. “Don’t know it’s important.”
“It’s five after 11:00,” Tommy said, as though receiving a sudden epiphany. “Why don’t we turn on the news and see what they have to say?”
“Channel 13,” John suggested. “They have the finest looking reporter working the story.”
All the men thought that was a good idea.
Fat David switched on the television hanging behind the bar and set it to Channel 13. The picture flickered into focus. Volume was just high enough for the men sitting at the bar to hear what was being said without bothering the bar’s other patrons.
What patrons there were.
“That’s her.” John pointed at the screen.
Steve watched the woman speaking to him from the screen. He normally hardly ever watched the local news, so he’d never seen her before. After seeing her now, he thought he might have to start watching more often.
She was beautiful, but most on screen reporters were beautiful. There was something else about her. She had thick, shoulder-length blond hair and very light blue eyes. But most striking physically was her mouth. Her lips were full, exquisitely formed and colored a deep red. They seemed to caress each word as it left her mouth.
“Officially,” she was saying to them now. “Authorities are not confirming that this latest murder was, or was not, committed by the person called The Ripper. Unofficially, sources tell me it bears enough resemblance that the task force has been assigned to its investigation. That would bring the total number of Ripper victims to eight.”
Most remarkable, she somehow managed to give the impression she was speaking to each of her viewers personally, intimately.
“Is she something else, or what?” John asked.
Steve thought he was going to sigh.
“Would you look at those lips?” Tommy murmured. “Something else.”
Steve nodded. Some guys were leg men, some preferred rear ends, others breasts, or hair. Steve was particularly attracted to women’s lips and the regulars along the bar knew it.
“Yeah, Steve,” John leaned forward over the bar to see around Tommy. “How about that mouth?”
Steve ignored him. He was still staring at the image on the television screen, watching those full lips move around her words.
“And in an exclusive to this reporter,” she said. “A source close to the investigation revealed that the task force is giving serious consideration to the possibility that more than one person is responsible for the killings.”
“That mouth,” Steve murmured. “Was designed for blow jobs.”
The men beside him laughed. Fat David, however, had a strange expression on his face. He even seemed to give his head a couple of quick shakes.
“She’d probably wring out every drop in five minutes,” John said.
Fat David’s weird expression intensified.
“Actually,” a familiar voice spoke just over Steve’s shoulder. “I doubt you’d last an entire minute.”
Steve turned—as did the rest of the men at the bar—to find Erica Morue, the television reporter standing directly behind them. His initial impression was that she was a lot shorter than he’d expected.
His second impression was that he’d just made an ass of himself.
The reporter flashed a smile at Steve, then turned to Fat David. “Could I get a screwdriver?”
The bartender nodded and began putting together her drink.
Steve turned back to the television, his face burning. “That was brilliant,” he murmured.
Tommy raised his eyebrows. “Oops,” he said and drained the last half of his beer.
No one said a word as the beautiful young reporter paid Fat David for her drink and took it with her into the room behind them. As soon as she’d gone, John began to giggle. Within a few seconds, Tommy had joined him, then Larry. Finally, Steve too was laughing. It had just been the perfect embarrassing moment. It couldn’t have been scripted better.
“Man,” Fat David was laughing too. “I tried to warn you guys.”
“I know. I saw it.” Steve nodded. “I just couldn’t figure out what you were doing. It looked like you had gas.”
This caused another round of laughter.
“Oh hell,” Steve fished his wallet out of his pocket. “Get these guys another drink, Dave. On me.”
Twenty-five minutes later, Steve sighed and pushed off his bar stool. “Time to make my move.”
“Your move?” Tommy asked. He was pretty drunk now and his words sounded mushy.
“Yep. Time to take a swing at our favorite reporter.”
Tommy glanced behind him to the table where the reporter was still sitting and nearly fell off his stool. “You’re kidding . . .”
Steve smiled and walked down to the other end of the bar where Fat David was working. He ordered another old fashioned for himself and a screwdriver. When David had put them together, Steve paid the bill and carried the drinks through the semi-deserted club to the table where Erica still sat alone. She had a yellow legal pad open on the table and had nearly filled it with tight, neat handwriting.
“Excuse me,” he said.
Erica looked up at him with a practiced, professional smile.
“I want to apologize for what I said earlier. I’m really not as much of a jerk as it sounded.”
Her smile spread to her eyes. “You couldn’t be.”
“Probably not,” he shrugged. “Anyway, I noticed your drink was nearly empty, so I took the liberty . . . as a way of apologizing.”
Her eyes shifted to the drinks in his hand, back up to his face. “Thank you. Apology accepted.”
Steve set the fresh drink in front of her and pulled out the chair on the opposite side of the table from her. She made no objection.
He sat down and extended his hand. “My name is Steve.”
They shook hands. She wore a musky perfume he could just smell under the odors of stale cigarette smoke and beer that dominated the room.
“I think you already know who I am,” Erica said and sipped her drink.
He nodded. “If you don’t mind my asking, what is a beautiful, successful woman like yourself doing alone in a bar on a Friday night?”
“Maybe I want to be?”
“Oh. I didn’t mean to intrude.” He started to get up.
“No. You’re fine.” She waved him back into his chair. “Actually, there seem to be very few men out there who don’t feel threatened by my success and are willing to take a back seat to my career. I’m very honest about it too. My career comes first. Everything else takes a back seat.”
Steve nodded. He could see how a lot of men would have a problem with that.
“Actually, I came here to work tonight,” she said. “I had an idea about doing some interviews with people who haven’t let The Ripper keep them from their normal lives . . .”
“But . . ?”
She shrugged and dazzled him with that smile again. He would have given his left arm to chew on her lower lip for a while.
“I didn’t feel like bothering anyone tonight,” she told him. “Believe it or not, it does get old intruding into people’s lives. So I’ve just been jotting down some ideas and relaxing.”
“I get the feeling you don’t spend a lot of time doing that—relaxing.”
“You don’t get to the networks by sleeping late; you get there by working late.”
“That’s what you want to do? Work for one of the networks?”
“Of course,” she told him. “That’s where the real action is.”
“I admire a person who knows exactly where they’re going,” he told her. “Most of my life seems to have been spent going around in circles.”
“I guess I’ve been lucky.”
He nodded. “It at least gives you a head start over those who spend ten years trying to figure out what they want to do.”
She sipped her drink. “You haven’t told me what you do yet. Or are you still trying to figure it out?”
He shrugged. “I do construction work. New homes and remodels. I do okay.”
“But it doesn’t make your heart go pitty-pat . . .”
He smiled. “I do okay. I pay my bills.”
They talked for thirty more minutes: about her past, growing up the prettiest girl in a small town
in California where her looks meant no one took her seriously. Of going off to school in the big city and then working her way rapidly up the television markets. They talked about his past, of growing up in a small town in Oregon where sports ruled everything. Or going off to college in the city and the financial limitations that dashed his dream of an academic career.
“You’re a strange man,” Erica said when the histories had ended. “You’re educated, but you make your living with your hands. You’re good looking, confident, and financially stable—the type of man most women would die for—but I’d bet you haven’t been in a real relationship for months. And you probably don’t have any real friends. Those idiots at the bar don’t count.”
Steve just smiled.
She reached over to take his hand. Her own hands were warm and dry and surprisingly strong.
“I think I would enjoy getting to know you better,” she said.
“I know I would like to get to know you better.”
She smiled. “But I have to work tomorrow . . .”
“I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of a tease.”
“I won’t if you’ll let me call you.”
She nodded. “Let me give you one of my cards.”
She fished in first one pocket of her coat, then another, but came up empty. “Shit. I left them in the car.”
“I’ll walk you out. You can give me one then,” he told her. “You shouldn’t be alone on the street tonight. It isn’t safe out there.”
“Are you afraid of The Ripper?”
She smiled. “Good point. Just let me go to the little girls’ room first.”
She stood, shrugged into her overcoat, and walked toward the rest rooms.
Steve carried the remains of his drink toward the bar.
“How’s it going, Casanova?” Tommy asked.. “Is she taking you home?”
“I’m just going to walk her to her car.”
“Yeah, right.” John said.
“Don’t you guys have someone else you can worry about?”
They just laughed.
Steve looked back just as she emerged from the rest room. Her overcoat was buttoned up now against the autumn chill outside. A black leather purse hung from her shoulder and exactly matched her gloves. She looked gorgeous.
He left his drink at the bar and walked over. “Ready?”
They walked out of the bar together.
“You should have brought a coat,” Erica told them as they started down the sidewalk.
“I’ll be fine.”
The night was eerily quiet after the bar, even as subdued as it had been tonight. There was no traffic on the street, glistening still from the recent rain. No one walked the sidewalks. The lights at the intersection clicked audibly as they switched from green to amber and then red. Steve couldn’t remember ever hearing the switch work before.
“I’m parked right around the corner.” She pointed toward the side street.
That was kind of odd. It wasn’t like the bar had been busy tonight. There must have been plenty of closer parking spots.
“Do you live far?”
She shook her head. “A few miles. Off of Houston Street.”
Steve knew the area. It was quiet and moderately well to do. A place where a woman living alone could expect to do so in safety. As much as any woman living alone could be safe.
They turned the corner onto the side street. Here, there were fewer sodium vapor lamps to fight the shadows which grew along the sides of the brick buildings and pooled along the curb.
Their footsteps on the wet concrete seemed unnaturally loud.
“There it is.” Erica pointed to a dark colored BMW.
“Thanks. She’s my baby.”
They stopped on the sidewalk beside her car.
“I’ve really enjoyed this,” she told him. “I want to make sure I said that before I forgot.”
“So have I.”
He started toward her, but she turned away. “Let me get you a card.”
She turned off the car alarm and reached for the driver’s door, then stopped. “Oh, no . . .”
Steve stepped closer to the front tire. It was definitely flat. Not just flat, something was protruding from the sidewall.
Someone had slashed her tire.
“Made ay enemies recently?” He squatted down beside the ruined tire, grabbed the handle of the knife and wrenched it from the sidewall. It was a Buck sheath knife, a favorite of hunters for skinning game. It had been honed to razor sharpness.
He briefly wondered why the vandal had left such an expensive knife stuck in the tire. Had they interrupted him?
“I can’t believe anyone would do this.”
“Well, someone did.” He stood again. “The good news is that as long as you have a spare, I can have you on your way in half an hour.”
When she didn’t answer, he turned to face her. “You do have a spare, don’t–”
His words died in his throat. Erica had backed away a couple of steps. She now held a small, but lethal-looking automatic pistol firmly in both hands. It was pointed at his head.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She smiled. “You’re a sweet guy. I really think we could have had something if things were different.”
“Look, I don’t know what you think I did . . .”
“See, this is such a good career move. Can’t you see it? Local reporter kills serial killer,” she said. “And I’m truly sorry, Steve, but you fit the profile to a tee and you’re holding the murder weapon. I was just defending myself.”
He looked down at the knife he’d taken from the tire, then back up at her. “Oh God. It’s you. This whole time.”
“What can I say?”
She pulled the trigger.