Charles had lost sight of the nondescript white sedan the two men had gotten into within a block of their departure, but the obnoxious little private eye seemed to have the scent. “Make a left at the next light,” Katz said, sitting confidently forward in the seat.
“I don’t see them,” he replied, but turned anyway. He knew this wasn’t his bailiwick, but couldn’t stop the comments from slipping out. Katz’ unprofessional manner was part of the problem; his own eagerness to find Nikki was probably a big component of the rest.
“Don’t worry, I got ’em.”
“How long are we going to follow them?” Los Angeles was a maze of unfamiliar streets and storefronts. Charles was uncertain that he’d be able to find his way back to the 401 at this rate, let alone the airport. When Katz didn’t answer, he said, “Tell me something, detective.”
“Whatcha want to know?”
“The fingerprint you mentioned. Nikki’s fingerprint. You said it was in a bank in Colorado?”
“B’lieve I did. Denver, if memory serves.”
“Who ran the prints? Why wasn’t I contacted, if–“
“I didn’t say she robbed the bank,” Katz said. “They turned again. First street past the light. Left. Right here.” Charles almost missed the turn, and the car lurched as it clipped the curb. “There they are,” Katz said. Charles looked, and saw the two men from Liz Bahti’s apartment going up the steps into a second-floor apartment. This building was in a much nicer area than the last one had been, and the men’s well-worn black clothes still looked a few tax brackets too low for the neighborhood. The shorter man opened the door with a key, and they both went in.
“Now do we go talk to them?” Charles asked.
“Nah,” Katz said. He reached into his Columbo coat with one hand and pulled out a short stack of 4×6 black and white prints. Charles realized that they were stills from a surveillance camera as Katz dumped them nonchalantly into his lap. Each had a diminutive, dark-haired woman at the center. He picked them up to look at them closely, and his heart leapt as he saw his sister. Nikki was older, obviously, and dressed more androgynously than she’d used to, but it was unmistakably her.
“Do the police–“
“They don’t know a damn thing. They don’t research everyone who walks into a bank these days, you know.”
“So what do you have, apart from photos?”
“I have your sister in a bank in Colorado about two weeks ago,” Katz said, sounding bored. “And maybe a bit more than that.”
“Not yet,” Katz said, shaking his head slightly and not taking his eyes off of the apartment. “I don’t like to give out information before I’m sure it’s good.” Charles started to speak, and Katz held up a hand. “I understand that you feel like you’re closer to Nikki than you have been in years,” he said sympathetically, “but these things aren’t always like rollercoaster rides, speeding up and getting easy at the very end. Every little step’s full of mistakes and missteps. So I need you to trust me, Mr. Saxen. Can you do that? Trust my instincts. I’ll give you info when I’m sure of what it means.”
Charles sighed. “I can do that,” he said.
“When you played football, you were a QB, weren’t you?” That got a laugh out of his client. “Let’s wait here a few minutes, then go up and talk to these guys.”
A few minutes passed, then half an hour. Charles concealed his desire to go, choosing to trust Katz. The private eye continued to watch the apartment as if he could hear what was going on inside. They had been waiting for almost an hour when he moved suddenly for the door. “Let’s go,” he said. As Charles opened his door, Katz hissed, “Wait! Wait! Wait!” and dropped back into the car.
The taller man had come out of the apartment. He was walking down the sidewalk, not back toward the car he’d come in, but toward them. Rather than throwing himself back into the car, Charles got out and closed the door on Katz’ urgent whisper that he should get back in. It seemed more natural to get out of the car; if he stood and stretched and didn’t pay any attention to the man, surely that would be less noticeable than diving back into the car. Charles didn’t want to tell Katz how to do his job, of course.
For a moment it seemed like the man was going to come straight to the car and confront them, but he stayed on the sidewalk. The man barely glanced at Charles as he went past, and he didn’t look back.
Katz got out when the guy was gone. “Let’s go up to that apartment.”
“Talk to the little guy?”
“Everyone’s a little guy to you, Mr. Saxen.”
Katz’ delivery was a perfect deadpan, and it took Charles a moment to figure out that it was a joke and not a criticism. He smiled, and followed Katz out of the car.
No one answered the first knock on the door, nor the second, harder knock. As Charles raised his hand to knock again, Katz grabbed his elbow, sudden concern in his brown eyes. “Wait,” he said. “Do you smell that?”
Charles frowned irritation at being grabbed. “Smell what?”
“He ain’t going to answer the door,” Katz said. He dug in his pocket, pulled out a leather glove, and turned the doorknob. It was unlocked.
“What are you doing?”
“Just having a look.”
“You can’t go in there. You’re not breaking and entering.” Charles’ voice was imperious.
As the door swung open, Katz said, “Don’t worry.”
The shorter man had been semi-crucified on the wall of the apartment’s living room. His slack body dangled from a pair of scissors through one wrist and a large knife through the other. From the pulped condition of his face, he’d been worked over quite a bit either before being hung up, or while he was there. Whether he was unconscious or dead, it was impossible to tell, but the room smelled heavily of blood and shit. Charles recoiled, a hand over his mouth and nose. “Good God!” he gasped, taking several steps away from the door.
Katz said, “Go back to the car.” His eyes were narrowed, looking for evidence that this was a ritual murder of some kind. He didn’t see any on first blush–no candles, no sacred knives. The guy on the wall hadn’t been dressed in any special clothes, either. He took a step into the apartment, mindful of the spatters of blood on the floor and knowing that he probably only had a few minutes if one of the neighbors had heard this going on. And it hadn’t been quiet, he could tell that at a glance. The table in the dining room had been overturned, the chairs broken or tumbled and the light fixture broken. The television lay on its side, and what had been the coffee table was a pile of glass bracketed by cracked wood. Thematically, it wasn’t too different from Liz Bahti’s place, except for the corpse. The thought made him smile grimly.
“Katz, get out of there,” Charles said from the doorway.
He hadn’t realized how far in he was. Two more steps and he’d be at the body. The closer he got, the worse the smell got. The guy was almost certainly dead. His nose was hanging by a strip of flesh. He’d been stabbed in the torso, too, at least ten times. “I’m coming, ” he replied absently. There was a wallet on the table; he grabbed it and slipped it into a pocket. Scanning the floor and other flat surfaces quickly for clues, he saw an address book on the couch, below the dead man’s heels. It had a bloody fingerprint on it, but was sitting on top of the plaster that had fallen when the scissors were driven into the wall. Katz seized it, too, then picked his way carefully back to the door. “Let’s go,” he said. Charles was already on the way to the car.