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Authors: Leslie Tentler

Midnight Caller

Midnight Caller

LESLIE TENTLER

Midnight Caller

In memory of my mother, who taught me the thrill of a rainy day and a good book.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

There are so many people to whom I am indebted. Many thanks to my agent, Stephany Evans, at FinePrint, and to Susan Swinwood and Linda McFall at MIRA Books for their wonderful guidance and support. Thanks also to my husband, Robert, for his unending patience and handling of all things in our lives not book-related, and to my friend Michelle for being my reader and constant sounding board.

1

T
revor Rivette waited in autopsy room three in the basement of All Saints Hospital, aware the conversation taking place in the corridor was centered on him. The door had been left ajar, and he listened intently as he looked around the windowless space that held the sharp odor of antiseptic.

“The FBI man's in there with the body. Says he just got into town.”

The heavy drawl belonged to Douglas Semer, medical examiner for the Orleans Parish, whom Trevor had met a short time earlier. A pale, older man with thick glasses that gave him an owlish look, he'd greeted Trevor's arrival with a hint of suspicion.

“How long's he been waiting?” another male voice asked.

“Half hour, maybe.”

A third man spoke. His voice was gruffer, as if he'd been smoking cigarettes for most of his life. “He say why the feds are interested in our dead body?”

“Nope. I told him I'd have to wait for the NOPD to get here before I could give a rundown on the gross exam.”

Semer's reply held a tone that suggested
we local boys stick together.

Trevor returned his gaze to the stainless-steel autopsy table
that held the victim's nude body. The girl's lips were blue and slightly parted, and her reddish-blond hair fanned out behind her head. A body block had been used to position the corpse for autopsy, and the telltale Y-incision that ran from each shoulder before extending into a single line down to the pubic bone indicated Semer had completed his job.

She was sixteen at best, years younger than the other victims so far. The fact that she was barely more than a child made this particular death seem even more pointless and brutal. Releasing a breath, Trevor stared at the engraving on the room's wall. The words were in Latin, but he made the translation easily.

This is the place where death rejoices to teach.

When it came to dead women lying on tables, he felt as though he'd already learned enough to last him several lifetimes.

The door to the autopsy room opened, and Semer entered with the two men he'd been conversing with in the hallway.

“Detectives McGrath and Thibodeaux, this is Agent Rivette with the FBI.” Semer made the introduction, and Trevor stepped forward to shake hands. The first, McGrath, was middle-aged and heavyset with a balding pate and a mustache, and Thibodeaux was a lanky African-American with hair that had begun to gray at the temples. Like Trevor, they both wore holstered guns on their hips.

McGrath made a point of squinting at the guest pass clipped to Trevor's suit lapel. “So, Special Agent Rivette, Semer says you're from up north. Does that mean you're from the field office in Mobile?”

Trevor smiled faintly at his joke. “A little farther north than that. D.C., actually. I'm with the Violent Crimes Unit.”

“VCU, huh? That's big time.” McGrath's expression, however, indicated he was unimpressed.

Trevor continued, “I was on my way to your precinct to
get a look at the crime scene photos, but I wanted to stop by here and see if the autopsy report was ready.”

“Only an unofficial one,” Semer stated. “Nothing's typed up yet and the toxicology results won't be back till tomorrow—”

“Rivette's a local name.” The other detective, Thibodeaux, cut in. Leaning against the front of the built-in refrigeration unit where bodies were stored, he looked at Trevor with interest. “Genealogy's a hobby of mine. If I'm not mistaken, your last name's Acadian, isn't it?”

Trevor nodded faintly. “I've got some family here.”

When he offered no further details, Thibodeaux moved his attention to the corpse. “This girl somebody special, Agent? You've come a long way.”

“It's not so much the victim as the way she was murdered.” A microphone used for recording the medical examiner's notes hung over the autopsy table. Trevor moved it out of the way so he could lean over the body and point out a puncture wound behind the tip of the jaw. “The jugular and carotid artery were severed in a single slice. The manner of death, along with the rosary used to bind the victim's hands, fits a pattern of murders in other cities over the past eighteen months. ViCAP kicked out your victim as another possible match.”

McGrath tapped the notepad he was holding with a ballpoint pen. “You're saying we've got a serial murderer working New Orleans?”

“I doubt this is coincidental. The M.O. is too similar, which is why I flew down.”

“To take over our case.”

Trevor stared at an open cabinet that contained tools of the trade, including a rib spreader and handheld bone saw. He was prepared for resistance. “Look. I know local police and the FBI have a reputation for not getting along—”

“Like atheists at the Vatican,” Thibodeaux muttered.

“That doesn't have to be the situation here,” Trevor emphasized. “I'm not interested in who gets credit for what—I just want to find this guy. We can work this murder together, share information, or we can work it apart. But this is New Orleans, and I'm guessing you guys have a backlog of cases that need to be moved into the black.”

Thibodeaux narrowed his eyes. “So it's a
help me help you
kind of deal?”

“Something like that.”

Rubbing his jaw, McGrath asked, “How many victims?”

“Five, counting this one.”

“Where?”

“D.C., Atlanta, Memphis and Raleigh. Now here. The good news for you is that he seems to have a one-vic-per-city policy. He may have already moved on, which means I will soon, too.”

“And if he hasn't?” Thibodeaux inquired.

“Then we got a bigger problem than one dead body.” McGrath scratched behind his ear with the pen. “The media give this prick a name yet?”

Trevor crossed his arms over his chest. “The press hasn't connected the murders yet due to the widely dispersed locales, and because certain identical facts have been kept confidential. Internally, he's being referred to as the Vampire, based on the method of killing and because several of the victims have been tied to the goth club scene in their respective cities.”

“Well, this one was found in an abandoned shotgun on Tchoupitoulas, nowhere near any of the nightlife,” Thibodeaux said. “'Course, lividity suggests she was relocated several hours after death. The amount of blood at the crime scene also doesn't match the severity of the vic's injuries.”

McGrath turned to the M.E. “Speakin' of, we got an ID on her yet?”

“Still a Jane Doe,” Semer said, taking his cue. He went to the autopsy table and clicked on the overhead lamp, then snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “You boys ready for the full tour?”

The harsh lighting made the dead girl's ashen skin look nearly transparent, and the body cavity sagged along the closed autopsy incision due to the removal of internal organs.

McGrath blanched. “Jesus, Semer. What you do with the stuff you pull out of 'em, I don't wanna know.”

“Then I won't tell you.” Semer shifted his eyes to Trevor. “But Agent Rivette is correct—the cut to the throat was the fatal strike. It was basically an exsanguination. Approximate forty percent blood loss.”

Using his gloved hand, he indicated other incisions on the body. “All these other cuts, mostly superficial, were made antemortem.”

He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “If you want my opinion, I'd say the son of a bitch took his sweet time with her before she died.”

 

What had once been a working-class neighborhood had taken a distinct turn for the better, but the house in New Orleans's Faubourg Marigny District still looked familiar to Trevor Rivette. Changes had been made, of course, so that the house was a better fit with the BMWs and Volvos parked along the tree-lined street, vehicles of the upwardly mobile families who now inhabited the area, pushing up the homes' value. Like the neighboring houses, the West Indies-style cottage was no longer a staid white. Painted a vibrant raspberry, its gingerbread trim was well cared for and accented in pink. Wrought-iron picket fencing bordered the yard, and rattan rockers sat on the covered front porch next to green ferns in clay pots. From his vantage point on the sidewalk,
Trevor heard children's laughter coming from somewhere down the street. A wind chime on the house's porch tinkled in the warm zephyr of the early evening.

If he didn't know better, he might think this had been a good place to grow up.

He opened the fence gate and walked the short distance up to the porch. As Trevor stood on its whitewashed, wood-planked flooring, his hand rose from his jeans pocket to rub briefly at his forehead. This was Annabelle's house now. The ghosts were still here only if he let them be.

She must have been waiting for him, because the door opened before he knocked. Annabelle Rivette smiled as she pulled her brother into her arms. When she finally released him, Trevor stared into the face that was ingrained in his memory. Annabelle had changed little. Her wavy, brunette hair and sky-blue eyes were exactly as he remembered.

“It's been a long time, Trevor,” she said.

“Too long,” he admitted. He was regretful of how much time he'd allowed to pass. It had been three years since he was last in New Orleans. He'd returned for their mother's funeral, but even then he'd arrived only a short time before the service and left soon after. There had been a justifiable reason—a double homicide in Richmond had pulled him away. But they both knew that even without the responsibilities of his career with the FBI's Violent Crimes Unit, he'd have found it difficult to stay.

A child's thin voice called from inside the house, and Annabelle led Trevor from the porch into the front room. Nearly everything here was different. The high-ceilinged space was painted blue and beige, and an area rug covered the wood floors. Plantation shutters had taken the place of heavy curtains over the windows. The stiff antique furniture was also gone, banished in favor of an overstuffed couch and matching chair with an ottoman. Even the fireplace mantel, which was
original to the house and hand carved from cypress wood, had lost its dark stain. It was repainted white, and the antique mirror that had once hung over it was replaced with a cheerful painting of a French Quarter scene.

“There you are,” Annabelle said as a little girl came into the room. “Haley, this is your uncle Trevor.”

Haley stared up at him unabashedly. A stuffed animal, a purple angora cat that looked as if it had seen better days, dangled from her grasp. Tendrils of curly hair had escaped from her ponytail, and she brushed them out of her face with a slight frown of annoyance.

“I haven't seen you since you were a baby,” Trevor said.

“I'm not a baby anymore. I'm five years old.” She held up one small hand with all her fingers outstretched.

He smiled as he knelt down, putting himself at eye level with his niece. “What I meant was that your mom sends me photos, but I didn't realize how big you'd gotten.”

Haley swung the frazzled cat back and forth, her eyes still fastened on Trevor. “You look like Uncle Brian.”

His chest tightened at the mention of his brother's name. He thought of Brian's dark hair and blue-gray eyes, so much like his own. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Mommy says you have a gun, like a policeman. Did you bring it?”

“I left it at the hotel.” He didn't mention the compact off-duty gun, a .380 Beretta semiautomatic he was carrying concealed in an ankle holster. “They're not safe, you know.”

“Then why do
you
have one?”

Trevor looked at Annabelle. The grin on her face seemed to say,
See what I put up with?

“Dinner will be ready soon, sweetie,” she said to Haley. “Why don't you go play for a while. Uncle Trevor and I are going to talk about grown-up stuff.”

“Can I watch cartoons?”

“Knock yourself out,” Annabelle replied, and Haley disappeared down the hallway.

“Thank God for television.” She looked at Trevor, who had stood back up and was glancing around the room. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Just a soda, if you have one.”

He followed her into the small kitchen. Trendy Mexican tile had replaced the worn linoleum, and there were new appliances in eggshell white. A pot of something savory bubbled on the stove, filling the air with the scent of tomatoes and spicy peppers. A gourmet coffeemaker sat on the counter, instead of the old-fashioned percolator Trevor recalled from his childhood. Like the parlor, everything about this room was fresh and new. It was as if Annabelle thought she could transform the house's karma by ripping out enough fixtures and flooring, and covering the walls with a coat of paint. The image of a hulking man with a swinging fist clutched at him, stealing his breath before it disappeared as swiftly as it came. Trevor touched the scar that ran along the base of his chin. His proof the past existed.

“You okay?” Annabelle handed him a soda from the refrigerator.

“Yeah.” He nodded, aware that despite their time apart, his sister still had the ability to read his face.

Annabelle had also gotten out a soda for herself, and they sat down across from one another at the table. He took a sip from the can that was already slick with condensation and stared out the window into the small backyard bordered by an ancient brick wall. A massive, moss-draped live oak provided a canopy for nearly the entire patio area and farther back, a child's swing set. Looking up through the tree's outstretched limbs he could see slivers of sky as daylight faded into the gathering dusk.

“Sawyer Compton says hello,” Annabelle said. Sawyer was
an old friend who'd grown up a few streets over. He'd played football at Louisiana State University before attending law school, and Trevor knew he was serving as assistant D.A. for the Orleans Parish.

“How is he?”

She smiled as she lifted the soda can to her lips. “Maybe you should stick around and find out for yourself. He's having his annual crawfish boil in a few weeks.”

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