Inky blackness consumed the night sky. Indigo streaks and green flares broke up the smog-clad clouds, reminding Jordan Knight of swamp gas. She knew it was pollution from the near six and a half million vehicles that trudged along Los Angeles streets and highways every day, but she still thought it looked pretty. But, just like the soft yellow light of the flickering streetlamps, the illumination was unnatural. The downtown street she was walking along, and the city itself, never saw a pitch-black night. From up in the Hollywood hills or the Santa Monica mountains, the fragmented L.A skyline gave off a ghostly pale glow that seeped into everything surrounding it.
Like any city though, there was darkness here. It waited in the alleyways and parking lots. It stalked the city parks and roadsides. And it always found prey. On average, three hundred people were murdered every year within city limits. Another two and a half thousand were victims of rape. Eight thousand citizens would be robbed in the coming twelve months, and sixteen thousand would be assaulted. The statistics, which Jordan knew off by heart, made her habit of walking the streets of her downtown neighbourhood in the early hours look unwise. Strangely, it was the veiled threat and uncertainty that made Jordan enjoy it. Confidence also came in the form of a neatly holstered Sig Sauer P320 XCOMPACT pistol, and a bronze-plated badge in her jacket pocket with the numbers 8306 and letters L A P D stamped into it.
She crossed the street, taking a left as she passed under a streetlight. It was habit by now, a good place to see if she had picked up any unwanted interest. But no shadows were catching up with her own, and the only footsteps she could hear were hers, as the soft echo of her sneakers sounded out on the hard concrete of the sidewalk. At the end of the street she could see lights, and she wondered if Lorenzo’s would still be open. It was unlikely, being the wrong side of 3am, but Anthony – or “Little Tony” as everyone seemed to call him, often let the hours slide by if everyone was having a good time. She was glad to have found a decent jazz club only a few blocks away from her apartment. Especially one where they didn’t water down the drinks and served decent food.
She slowed as she approached, trying to gauge if the lights were indeed coming from Lorenzo’s. As she got closer, she heard the lonely notes of a piano seemingly chiming along with the rhythm of her heartbeat. She paused by the steps that led down to the entrance. It was dark. Officially closed. She decided to try her luck. She stepped as heavily as she could on the stone stairway, as if to give Tony warning of her arrival. She pushed down on the handle of the dark red door and smiled as it swung open. Instantly, the piano music stopped.
“Had a feeling you’d be coming around. Why is it always when I don’t see you, I know I’m going to see you?” came a smooth, deep and booming voice out of the darkness.
“Come on Tony, you know I can’t sit in here when you’re open. Otherwise, I’d have to pay,” Jordan replied, walking forwards.
“And?” the voice challenged.
“And… I wouldn’t get private performances from LA’s most underrated pianist. You don’t take to the stage unless you’re closed.”
Tony responded with an amused grunt. As she walked forwards, she could see his huge form sat at the piano. The instrument itself was one of the things that had first indicated that Lorenzo’s was a special place. It was a Stuart & Sons grand, of which there were only about eighty in the world. It boasted an extended keyboard, which meant a musician with enough talent could play things on it that would be impossible on other pianos. It was also eye-catchingly finished in blackheart sassafras timber, with long strips of dark brown set against pale yellow grain.
For a man that must have weighed well over 300lbs, Little Tony was light on his feet. The heavyset African-American wore a tailored charcoal pinstripe suit and a blood-red shirt, the colour of which she caught as he walked underneath one of the few spotlights still turned on. He was headed to the bar. She smiled.
Tony picked out a cocktail glass and placed it on the counter. Now nearer, Jordan could hear the strain of the air as is battled past his stuffy, partially-closed nostrils. A generous pouring of vodka went into an ice-stuffed stainless-steel shaker, followed by Cointreau and cranberry juice. Jordan watched as his large left hand roughly squeezed a ripe lime until it burst, allowing the juice to join the rest of the contents. He slapped the lid on without ceremony, then, using both hands, he shook the container violently. He poured the cosmopolitan expertly into the spotlessly clean glass and stood back.
“What would I do without you, Tony?” Jordan laughed.
“You’d god-damn go someplace else and flutter your eyelids at them until you got what you wanted,” Tony challenged.
“I don’t do that to you,” she huffed. “And I can’t get what I want anywhere else, they’re all closed,” she said softly.
“Imagine,” Tony replied with mock surprise. “You know I only do this because you told me it helps you sleep.”
“It does, but not as much as…”
Tony let out a sigh and turned his back to Jordan and took a key out of his right suit pocket. He unlocked a cabinet at the rear of the bar and reached in. Jordan couldn’t see past his mass, but she could hear him at work. When he returned, he was carrying a small plate. On it, thinly-sliced Ibérico bellota ham sat beside Cornish Kern cheese.
“You have New York taste and L.A. attitude Ms Knight. That’s a dangerous combination,” Tony scoffed. “And cheese before bedtime is meant to give you nightmares”.
“Don’t forget my English education,” Jordan replied, upgrading her colloquial British accent to something more aristocratic. “But nothing gives me nightmares,” she added, much more softly.
An hour later, Jordan slipped back into her apartment. She silently walked past the kitchen, quickly checking on the sleeping white and tan pit-bull terrier stretched out in front of the refrigerator. World’s greatest guard dog she thought, smiling. She walked into the bedroom and took off her sneakers. She placed the pair of black Bottega Veneta shoes in their empty slot inside the wardrobe, then lay down on the bed. She closed her eyes.
Three hours and thirty-seven minutes later, the ringing of her cell phone dragged her from the recesses of sleep. She studied the lit-up screen for a second, seeing it was her partner, Lucas Christian.
“You awake boss?” came his tentative query.
“Who on Earth do you think’s answering the phone, genius,” she replied, trying to vail the croak in her voice.
“I honestly don’t know sometimes, but whoever she is, she’s needed at the launderette on East 3rd Street, you know, the one opposite the Korean BBQ?”
“What have we got?”
“It’s best you just come see for yourself. Let’s just say if you weren’t you, they’d be thinking about calling the Feds.”
Jordan put down the phone and sat up, swinging her legs out of the bed. She stripped off the sweat pants and T-Shirt she’d been wearing as she headed for the shower. Three minutes later, she finished towelling herself down in front of the wardrobe. She picked out a charcoal coloured suit and a white shirt as she refreshed her underwear. Dressing quickly, she slid the gun holster back on, covering it with the suit jacket, which in turn covered her slim frame, bulking it out slightly. After grabbing a pre-packed blue leather wallet bag that would fit into the suit’s inner pocket, she popped her feet back into the black designer sneakers and checked herself in the mirror. The gun and the bag equalled out the pull on the jacket as she’d hoped. She pulled her long dark hair up into a ponytail. Her green eyes flashed in the darkness of the bedroom, where she hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights. She felt tired, but she knew she looked better than she felt, and that was all that would matter. Her male colleagues, although their own grooming habits were questionable and nowhere near as fine-tuned as hers, would see weakness instead of the toll of the job they all suffered from.
Lucas’ comment about the Feds had sparked her interest. Something significant had happened. As she walked out, she passed the framed doctorate in Criminal Psychology from Stanford that hung above a small bookshelf. Beside the collector’s edition of Sherlock Holmes stories, were three books she herself had written. One put the spotlight on unsolved murder cases, three of which no longer fit that category, thanks to her. The second focused on the social motives behind violent crime. The third was by far her “best-seller”, giving a blow-by-blow account of her part in taking down a cunning and sadistic serial killer known as “The Fox”.
A further nod to her obsession and career trotted up to greet her in the hall. “Watson” was a handsome dog, mainly white, with a tan eye patch and saddle. She had rescued him from a dog-fighting ring discovered in the 7th precinct. As a homicide detective, she hadn’t been involved directly, but she had seen the pups brought in. His brothers and sisters had gone to the shelter. Watson came home with her, and she had named him after the famous companion of Sherlock Holmes. So far, it was the only long-term relationship she’d had in L.A. She made a fuss of the dog and kissed him on top of his muzzle.
Lucas looked up as he heard the distinct rumble of Jordan’s car. The black 1977 Jaguar XJC coupé had a V12 engine and he could only imagine it was hell to drive in L.A. traffic. With lowered suspension and a custom set up, it wasn’t quite as out of place in the city as it seemed, but it was still an unusual sight. He watched, bemused, as the comparatively small Jordan appeared beside the enormous car. She wandered over to him. He reached inside the unmarked Dodge he had driven from the precinct and took the reinforced cardboard cup from the holder. He handed her the black tea as soon as she crossed the street to join him.
“Do you know how hard it is to find a coffee shop that serves tea you approve of, in a recyclable cup?” he complained.
“You wanted to be my partner, partner,” she chastised. “I work better alone.”
“You’re about to get your chance,” Lucas hinted, nodding towards the door of the launderette, crowded with uniformed officers. “Shall we?”
Jordan walked through the door and stopped. Her eyes scanned the shop front. Everything looked normal. Nothing broken, upturned, or out of place. A residual layer of dust suggested the floor hadn’t been cleaned in a couple of days. She noticed the imprints of the heavy-footed officers leading beyond the counter and followed them.
“Forensics are on their way, but you’ve got the place to yourself until then,” Lucas added.
Jordan knew that was unusual. Captain Ramirez would have had to make the call to break protocol. It was a rare privilege for detectives to access the crime scene before forensics. She sipped her tea as she made her way further back into the store. She froze as what was waiting for her came into view. The round, glass-fronted door to one of the stainless-steel industrial dry-cleaning machines was open, and she could see smears of pink smudged across it. She took a sip of her tea and walked forward. Inside the machine was the crumpled body of a man. The corpse sagged to its left. Jordan guessed part of the shoulder was crushed, and the collar bone and sternum were both certainly broken. Apart from a pair of shredded boxer shorts, he was naked. His skin had turned the colour of a boiled lobster. Bluish purple bruises and ruptured contusions covered the body, and what remained of his skin looked like it had been through a cheese grater. The left eye was missing completely. The thumb of his left hand was also gone. The rest of his fingers were grotesquely twisted backwards, all broken. But despite the mess the body was in, she already knew exactly who she was looking at.
Vincent Bianchi – known in certain circles as the Great White. A known money mover for a syndicate based on the West Coast, he was a big hitter. Or at least, he had been. Her eyes had swept the floor as she walked in. Blessed with an eidetic, or “photographic” memory as it was popularly and incorrectly known as, she retraced her steps in her mind and knew the crime scene was spotless. Yet somehow, a heavyset, six-foot three-inch man had been stuffed into a dry-cleaning machine. Presumably against his will. As a lover of Italian food, it had always been a gripe of Jordan’s that Bianchi owned three of the best restaurants in the area, and a decent nightclub. She never visited them out of principle. She looked at the dials of the machine. They were still on.
“Someone has a well-developed sense of irony,” she stated, looking closer.
“What’s that boss?” Lucas asked.
“A well-known money launderer who’s been laundered? I can imagine the headlines already. See the froth around the mouth and nostrils? He drowned in the solvent. His skin is bleached from the heat of the drying process, and he’s been torn and busted up pretty badly by the sieve. But he was already dead by then, so the blood is only on the surface, see?”
“Guess we don’t need forensics after all,” Lucas shrugged.
“Oh, we do.”
Lucas looked at her for an explanation.
“Look around, Detective,” Jordan prompted. “No signs of a struggle. Nothing out of place. But there is something missing, at least from our vic. Two things actually.”
“Okay, so, I saw his eye was out. Wasn’t that just the machine?”
“Far too neat. As was whatever took his thumb off.”
“Oh yeah,” declared Lucas, peering closer.
“Some detective,” Jordan smirked. “The point is. Vincent Bianchi was subject to extreme violence, and his substantial frame was loaded into that machine whilst he was still alive. But this place looks like it’s business as usual. That’s anything but usual, and I’d gander too subtle for his syndicate friends. I’d like to take a look at the office.”
“Back there, to the left,” Lucas indicated.
Jordan walked to the office, sure of what she would find. She pushed open the door and saw it straight away. The electronic safe, which she guessed required a thumb print and iris scan, was open and empty. Except it wasn’t. Inside was a single hundred-dollar bill, weighted down at both ends by Bianchi’s missing body parts. The eye in particular seemed to have been turned slightly upward, as if to meet the gaze of anyone looking in. As she peered closer, she noticed something else. A series of small, printed letters across the top of the bill.
“Rinsed the laundry. Will keep an eye on you J. X.”
The big Jaguar’s engine growled as it worked its way through the downtown traffic. Bianchi owned a condo on the 20th floor of “The Quillon”, one of the newer high rises on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard, at the far west of what was known as the Wilshire Corridor. The drive wasn’t going to be quick. Lucas had ditched the pool car, and they had both left the launderette as it was being processed by the forensics team. Lucas sat in uncomfortable silence in the passenger seat, finally bringing up what had been on his mind all morning.
“So…other than the guy’s thumb, what did I miss back there?” Lucas asked.
“Meaning?” Jordan shot back sharply.
“The note. Kind of seemed that might have been meant for you?”
“That’s quite a leap,” Jordan dismissed, not taking her eyes from the traffic ahead. “You can’t make those kinds of assumptions if you want to solve cases Lucas. The significance of the letter J could mean anything – we don’t have enough to go on yet. We need more parameters to establish any kind of link or motive, based on evidence. And we don’t have a lot of that yet.”
“Sorry Doc, my bad,” Lucas nodded, amused. “So, what’s your take so far?”
“Break it down for me, what are the facts – you’re meant to be a detective too remember,” she teased, shaking her head.
Lucas sensed he’d gotten off lightly.
“The crime scene was clean. For all intents and purposes, indications are that Bianchi entered the machine whilst alive, without force. It’s also indicated that the thumb and eye were removed post-mortem. Robbery appears to be the motive, and whoever did it, knows Bianchi’s connection to the syndicates. That’s why we think only Bianchi’s personal money was taken. The business holdings were untouched, and in a separate safe.”
“Good, glad you were listening when I was talking to forensics,” Jordan mused. “What can you conclude about our suspect?”
“They’re clearly persuasive – and don’t rely on brute force to get the job done. They also know what they’re doing – no trace evidence, fingerprints, or otherwise immediately identifiable. So, this is unlikely to be their first rodeo. And, the note, the sense of humour – suggests intelligence and a need to be in the spotlight.”
“Not bad Lucas,” Jordan replied genuinely. “You’re dangerously close to crossing the line from a rookie gumshoe to some fairly decent behavioural analysis there.”
“Learnt from the best, boss,” Lucas chuffed.
“Now all I need to do is get you to work on your dress sense,” Jordan laughed, noting his sand-coloured suit and off-white shirt that was noticeably missing a tie.
Lucas was literally head and shoulders taller than Jordan, much to the amusement of their precinct colleagues. It had often been said that they looked like a father and daughter when they walked down a corridor together, at least height wise. Lucas looked every bit the Californian stereotype. Blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. He even surfed. It was a stark contrast to Jordan’s slimline stature, straight dark hair and pinkish white skin, often reminding Lucas of the stereotypical English rose.
It was another thirty minutes before they pulled into the underground parking levels of The Quillon. As they walked towards the private elevator that would lead them to the 20th floor and Bianchi’s condo, Jordan noted the three reserved parking spaces for the apartment. Two were occupied by expensive looking Cadillacs – an enormous black SUV, and an equally large black sedan. The third space was empty, but a small oil stain on the floor and a narrow tyre track showed it had maybe only recently been vacated. Jordan pressed the intercom button for the elevator. It was answered immediately.
“Bianchi residence,” came a deep, but well-spoken voice.
“Detectives Knight and Christian, L.A.P.D, we’re investigating the murder of Vincent Bianchi. I believe you were made aware of our request to see Mr. Bianchi’s home and personal affects?”
“Why do you think we’re here, sweetheart,” the voice replied. Jordan caught the muffled laughter from whoever else was already upstairs. “Hit the button for the 20th floor, it’s the only stop on that level.”
Jordan and Lucas stepped into the elevator. When the doors opened, it was onto a wide, white-painted corridor. More doors on each side led off to what Jordan presumed were bedrooms and bathrooms. She could see the corridor culminated in a living area. A well-built man in a turtle-neck and blazer greeted them. Jordan noted two more men stepped into view from either side of the doors opening onto the lounge. One, wearing a dark brown leather jacket narrowed his eyes as she approached.
“You’re a cop?” he barked as he approached.
“That’s right, they even let us girls join the force now,” Jordan replied, pulling her badge. Lucas was still showing his to the guy in the turtleneck. “Wow, looks like we already have a detective here, could have saved us the drive over,” she quipped.
“You look familiar. You investigated Bianchi before?” the man questioned.
“He might have crossed my path, why, how many’d he kill?” Jordan shot back.
There was no reply, but the man seemed to continue to scrutinise her.
“Okay boys,” Jordan declared, as if tired. “Let’s cut to the chase. My name is Detective Knight. This is my partner, Detective Lucas. You don’t want us to be here and you want this to all go away. So, show us some ID and answer our questions, and we’ll leave quicker and quieter than if you don’t. I take it you are all employees of Mr. Bianchi?”
“We work together, put it that way,” the man in the turtleneck replied, opening his wallet to show them a California driving license. The name printed on it was Ivan Miller.
“In what capacity?” Lucas demanded, stepping forward to check the second man’s ID, revealing him to be a Levi Jones.
“Protection mostly,” the big guy in the leather jacket stated, holding his ground at the end of the corridor and still staring hard at Jordan.
“Might want to update those resumés,” Lucas whispered under his breath.
“We’re more about protecting certain assets Mr. Bianchi has in play. And they ain’t been affected, in fact…” Ivan replied, only to be cut off by a murderous look from the man in the leather jacket.
Jordan walked up the corridor, ignoring Bianchi’s muscle as she made her way across the room to a large, glass-topped desk that sat in a corner of the expansive lounge. His gaze followed her. Wall-to-wall windows flanked the desk on both sides, giving breath-taking views from the city skyscrapers to the ocean.
“Go ahead Ivan, finish that sentence, unless you’re chicken?” Jordan taunted.
“It’s nothing,” the heavy in the leather jacket cut in. “Syndicate business. As we said, we ain’t here as Mr. Bianchi’s protection.”
“You think he had his hand in the till?” Jordan enquired, looking over the desk and not meeting his gaze, although she caught the inflection that indicated she was right. “How’d you find out?”
“Something you cops like, an anonymous tip. Complete with returned monies,” the heavy replied.
Jordan flicked through the papers that were on the desk, checking the drawers. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, then her eye caught the indent on a pad she had brushed aside. It was extremely faint – made from the press of a pen or pencil on the sheet above, which was now missing. Jordan reached into her suit jacket, retrieving the pink leather wallet bag and unfastening the silver skull catch.
“Being a cop must pay well,” the leather-jacketed goon huffed. “That’s designer. My girlfriend has the same one, but black. I bought it, so I know what it cost lady.”
“Alexander McQueen,” Jordan remarked, as she fished out a sophisticated looking eyebrow pen and gently began to sweep it back and forth across the paper pad. “And, I imagine legitimately-obtained gains are something you’re less of an expert on.”
Jordan stared down at the paper. The imprint and lettering were much clearer now.
Meet her at the shop. Midnight.
“Do you know who he was meeting at the shop?” Jordan asked, looking up at the room. “I presume the shop is the dry-cleaning business?”
“Yep, that’s what he called it,” Ivan replied.
Jordan decided to focus on him, as he seemed to be more amenable and inclined to talk.
“Who was she?”
“We don’t know, he told us it was a date. We presumed it was a girl, you know, a…”
“Hooker?” Jordan answered for him, recognising his discomfort.
The man nodded.
“Tell me what you know,” Jordan chirped, confidently.
“Not much to tell. We’re not permanently attached to Mr. Bianchi. We only know he had a date, because he called Joey to tell him,” he nodded towards the man in the leather jacket.
“I thought Mr. Bianchi was married?” Jordan declared with mock surprise.
‘Yeah, well, he’s also Italian,” Joey laughed, heartlessly.
“Okay gents, a couple of things, then we’ll be out of your hair. First, I need to know what the Great White was wearing yesterday, and I need to know where the other car is.”
“How did you know a car was missing?” Joey challenged.
“Because I can read, and I can count,” Jordan sighed. Despite her flippancy, her hand tensed, ready to break to the holster hidden underneath her suit jacket. She could feel the tension, and her every instinct was reading the room. Even though the hostility seemed to only come from Joey, it was beginning to infect the other two. She could sense the agitation growing in all of them.
“Err, boss, I think I might know what he was wearing yesterday,” Lucas stated, looking through a door into the nearest bedroom.
Jordan crossed the lounge and peered in. A dark-coloured suit, a powder blue shirt, and pink and blue polka dot tie were laid out on the bed, sheathed in plastic. The white logo for Bianchi Dry Cleaning stood out against the clothing. As she took a step closer, she spotted the fine cotton pink socks neatly folded into the breast pocket of the suit.
“This is what he was wearing?” Jordan asked Ivan.
“We think so,” he nodded.
“The suspect dry-cleaned his clothes, then brought them back here?” Lucas asked out loud.
“As well as the syndicate stuff?” Jordan added. “This all happened this morning?”
The silence that met the question confirmed it.
“Sorry boys, we’re not getting out of here as quickly as you thought,” Jordan remarked. “Lucas, we’ll need forensics, and security logs for the building, camera footage from every store, hotel, and apartment block that has a view of the building entrance or parking level.”
“So, Joey, how much do you think they took altogether? I’m guessing anyone who took the time to come back here perhaps gave the place a once-over to make it worth their while?”
“We were trying to figure that out when you got here,” Joey shrugged.
“You mean someone beat you to the loot?” Jordan challenged.
“Want my help or not lady?” Joey grunted.
“My apologies, what do you know was taken, as you carefully and meticulously tried to account for Mr. Bianchi’s personal affects?”
“We figure about $4 million in cash,” Joey replied. “About a mill from here, and there would have been two to three at the office, easy. His watches are missing too, and some jewellery. They left the small stuff but took anything with big stones. Most of it isn’t traceable, except that car you mentioned.”
“Everything they took is easy collateral – they can shift it and sell it with little or no trouble,” Jordan mused. “So, the car?”
“A 1963, light blue Jaguar E-Type convertible with a red leather interior. Guy thought he was James Bond or something.”
“Know the license number?”
“I’m surprised you don’t yourself. Now I seen you up close, I got a feeling I know where I seen you befores,” Joey grinned.
“Oh really?” Jordan challenged.
“Couple of days ago, we were driving in. I only caught a glimpse, but you were stood by that very car, like you’d been looking at it. You walked to the lobby elevator, and you were wearing sunglasses, but it sure looked like you now I think about it.”
“I can assure you, unless Mr. Bianchi was upgrading from low-level money movement, he wouldn’t have been on my radar,” Jordan rebutted.
Jordan and Lucas waited until the forensics team and uniformed officers arrived to take over. As they left, they saw Joey and the other two confiding together. Even as the elevator doors closed, Joey didn’t take his eyes from Jordan, still talking to the others until they were blocked from sight.
“So, you been looking into Bianchi?” Lucas asked, quietly, as they walked back to the car. “Best I know now, or this gets ugly fast.”
“I don’t even eat in his restaurants, which is more devastating than it sounds,” Jordan replied. “That enforcer, Joey, he didn’t see me. But he definitely saw someone we need to talk to. I think we can safely say our leading suspect is currently female.”
“And looks like you,” Lucas grinned, regretting the remark instantly as he met Jordan’s angered stare.