Goku was in the kitchen of the safe house, reviewing his computer files of the three suspects Vegeta had looked from hundreds of possibilities in a three-day work marathon. Vegeta was interviewing one of them this morning. The other two were slated for the afternoon-assuming Vegeta stayed awake that long. When the portable phone rang, Goku picked it up quickly and looked at the caller ID. Vegeta's home number appeared in the display.
"I wanted to pass the updates along before I try to catch a few hours of sleep," Vegeta said, yawning.
"Did you just get home?"
"Yeah, I had an interview at the station with suspect number one. No go on him. He's got an airtight alibi for the night of Renata Mendes's murder. It was his birthday, and he was with a group of friends from work until after two in the morning."
"Several of the friends confirmed?" Goku asked.
"Yes, damn it. Anyway, I've already scheduled inter views for suspects two and three this afternoon. Can you make it into the station to do those, or do you want me to go back?"
"I'll do it. You've been working straight through since you turned Bulma over to me. You'll do something stupid if you don't get some sleep."
Vegeta had promised himself he wouldn't ask, but he couldn't stop himself. "How is she?" He hadn't talked to her, afraid that it would just upset her even more, and him as well.
Goku smiled. "She's amazing. That's a very strong woman you've got, partner. I can see the strain is wearing on her, but she kicked my ass at Hearts until three this morning."
"That's my girl," Vegeta said.
"Yeah, well just don't ever play cards with her for money. I think I owe her my next three paychecks."
"Is she sleeping now?"
"Like an angel, which is a clear case of fraud in adver tising."
Vegeta chuckled despite his exhaustion. "Who's doing inside surveillance while you're at the station?"
"I'll bring in the officer parked out on the street. During daylight hours we should be okay with one mobile guy se curing a perimeter around the house."
"Sounds good, as long as there's plenty of activity in the neighborhood during the day."
"Kids, soccer moms, gardeners and dogs. They should be fine. Captain Broly approved it rather than assign another body to the case."
"Okay, I'm going to catch a few hours of sleep. If one of the interviews looks hot, wake me up. Otherwise call you after you get back to the house tonight."
Vegeta disconnected and went facedown on his bed, sleeping for the first time since he'd been separated from Bulma.
"Fine, sir. I was surprised to get your call last night, but I'm happy to do what I can to help."
"Why don't you call me Yamcha, okay? All my friends do." He stepped into the apartment and shut the door.
"Urn, sure, Yamcha. Let's go over to the computer room."
The man looked around and found the usual squalor of an apartment occupied by a single male in his mid-twenties. He knew Uub was paid a good salary for his computer consulting at Tillman Brothers Software, but it was difficult to tell from the ratty furniture and lack of decorations. As they entered a second bedroom, Yamcha saw where Uub's paychecks had been going. A huge sound system took up much of one wall, and the computer equipment that filled the remainder of the room required three sepa rate desks to hold everything. He'd clearly picked exactly the right techno-geek to assist him.
"Listen, Uub. I want to thank you again for agreeing to miss work this morning to help me with my personal problem. You didn't tell anyone, did you?"
"No, you said you wanted it private," Uub replied. "You're the boss."
"Actually, my father is, but I appreciate your help. As I mentioned, the situation is extremely . . . delicate. I'm go ing to rely on both your technical skills and your discretion."
Uub puffed up a bit. "Sure. What do you need me to do?"
"Well, the whole thing is quite distasteful, really. But I'm pretty certain my girlfriend is cheating on me with a certain ex-boyfriend. She's always talking to someone on the phone, then she hangs up when I come in the room. She's tried to hide it, but a man just knows these things. I'm sure you understand."
Uub didn't understand any such thing, since the only relationship he'd ever had was with his computer. But he nodded manfully and tried to look knowledgeable and sympathetic.
"I have this guy's name and address," Yamcha continued. "What I'd like to do is have you, urn, look into his phone records and see who he's been calling. I'm sure my girl friend's number will be on the list. Then I'll have the proof I need to confront her."
"Phone records, huh? That's illegal, you know." Uub was eager to show off his hacking skills, but wanted to make sure his boss's son knew what was involved.
The man shrugged and tried to look sheepish. Beneath the sunglasses that he had yet to remove, his dark eyes were as cold as his voice was warmly understanding. "I know it's probably a little uncomfortable for you to do this, but I just don't know of anyone else with your tech nical abilities. I hate to ask, but I'm in a desperate situa tion here. And I'll be happy to pay for the inconvenience."
"No problem." Uub sat down at one of the computer screens. "Getting into phone records is a bit time-consuming, but not all that difficult. You just have to be careful not to leave any tracks behind, you know?"
"Yes, I know all about cleaning up after oneself. I as sume you have the skills to do that?"
"Piece of cake. What's this guy's name and number?"
"His name is Vegeta Ouji. I don't have his number, but I do have an address for him."
The man read off the ad dress and watched the nerd get to work. The next quarter hour passed with Uub muttering to himself and typing furiously. Occasionally he would stop and jot down something on a yellow pad next to his computer.
"Hmmm. Unlisted number, but that shouldn't be a big problem," Uub said to himself and opened another win dow on his screen.
The man stood motionless during the whole process, his heart pounding. He was so close he could taste it.
"Got it! Here we are." Uub magnified the size of the type on the screen and turned around triumphantly.
The man stepped forward to read over the geek's shoul der. The screen showed a list of calls, including the phone number and duration of the calls that originated from Ouji's home telephone number.
Starting last Sunday, the day after Bulma had dis appeared, the cop made two calls a day to a number in North County. Every day, like clockwork, morning and evening. It had to be connected to Bulma and her current location. He was close, so close. Yamcha tried to disguise his eagerness, aware the geek was looking at him. He had to be really careful here. He reached out with a steady hand and pointed to the number in North County.
"That number there," he said. "It might belong to my girlfriend's best friend. It would be just like that bitch to cover for her. Can you get me a name and address to go with it?"
"Sure. You don't even need to hack for that. Lots of websites let you do reverse number searches." Uub pulled up a browser window and selected a website. He typed in the information and hit send, and a reply came back within thirty seconds.
"That number is registered to Zarbon Adams at three twenty-three Myrtle Lane."
"Damn. I don't recognize that name. But my girlfriend's friend just got married. Can we find out who this Zarbon is and see if he's connected somehow?"
"Sure, I'll just run a search on Adams and see what kind of hits we come up with," Uub said, typing rapidly.
A few moments later, Uub shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Seems Zarbon Adams is a detective with the N.C.P.D."
Yamcha smacked his forehead. "How could I have forgot ten. The girlfriend married a cop a few months ago. She must not be on the phone listing yet." He spoke automati cally, while his mind changed gears as he processed this new information.
"Is there anything else you need today?" Uub asked. "I'm in the middle of something online."
Tillman had already memorized the address, so he stepped away from the screen. "Would you mind printing it out for me? I'm going to hire a private detective to see if my girlfriend has been using this house for her little affair?'
"Sure thing." Uub typed in the command, and then waited as the printer began to warm up. He took the op portunity to check his own work e-mail. "I can send you the whole file if you want."
Tillman thought about the rubber gloves in a pocket of his shorts, but he was afraid that even Uub would notice if his unexpected guest snapped on gloves. With a mental shrug, Tillman pulled a gun out of his shorts and grabbed a cushion off the floor to muffle the shots and keep the gore off of him.
"That won't be necessary," he said and fired into the back of Uub's head. He set the cushion aside, put the gun back in his waistband, and pulled on the rubber gloves. He looked at the blood splattered over the computer monitor and keyboard, and decided to shut off the machine manu ally rather than power the system down properly and risk getting bloody.
Watching where he stepped, he saw that the printer still hadn't processed the earlier request. Impatient at the de lay, he reached behind the unit and unplugged it from the wall. His memory was as good as, and certainly faster than, the printer. From there he went to the nerd's closet, frowned at the clothes, and pulled a wrinkled button-down shirt over his bloodstained T-shirt. As he checked his appearance in a mirror, he hummed quietly.
'Tonight Bulma would be his.'
Wednesday, late afternoon
Vegeta stepped into the offices of Camelot and tried not to think of how many times he had seen Bulma there, and how much he missed seeing her now. Nor was he likely to be seeing her soon—his three hot suspects hadn't worked out. One of them had been overseas. The other had a broken foot that was still in a cast.
"Thank you for letting me disrupt your work schedule and agreeing to stay late," Vegeta told Juu.
"No problem. Mom has the boys and she'll keep them all night if necessary." Juu tilted her head and studied the detective's tired features. "Things aren't going well."
"There has to be some clue here that we've over looked," Vegeta said. "This is where it all started, so this is where I'm going to start all over again."
"Any particular place you want to begin?"
"Remember how we agreed to eliminate the male clients who had been entered in the database after the night of the murder?"
Juu nodded. "Yes, because Bulma felt she'd seen the killer's picture in our database the night the murder took place."
"We've been through all the names of men who were members before the murder, and we don't have anything useful. Now I want to go through the rest of the clients."
Juu looked doubtful. "All right."
"Goku is at the station right now," Vegeta said, knowing how lame his idea sounded. Lame or not, he just knew they must have overlooked something, and this was the most obvious placers start. "He's waiting for us to fax him over a list of the remaining names in the catalogue., He'll run them through the computer. I'll compare photos with sketches the department artist drew based on Bulma's description of the man she saw in the backyard of your house."
Juu went to her computer. "I'll print a list of names sorted by date of membership initiation. Do you want pic tures, too?"
"Yes, but send Goku the text list first and do the photos separately."
Within five minutes, she had a list of male clients who had signed up since the night of the murder. She handed the printout to Vegeta, who scanned it quickly.
"That's almost a hundred more than there were the last time we checked," he said. "Do you normally get this many new clients within a couple of weeks?"
"No. It's the publicity from that news story. Last week we were swamped with inquiries and new members. It's ghoulish if you ask me. Give me Goku's fax number and I'll send the names. The photos are up on my computer."
Vegeta wrote Goku's number across the top of the list and went to Juu's desk. He stacked the files he'd brought in alphabetical order across the desk. After a few minutes of flipping back and forth on his own files and on the screen, comparing faces with sketches, he made a frustrated sound. "Do you have a room with more table space and network access?"
"Let's go to the conference room down the hall-It seats about ten, and it has a computer that can run the catalogue database."
Vegeta gathered files, followed Juu down the hall, and set his papers in orderly piles on the big table. She went to the computer at the head of the table and turned it on.
"This will take a few minutes," Juu said.
Vegeta stifled his impatience and stuffed his hands in his pockets, then began to pace the room. Outside the win dow, the sun was setting in a blaze of summer color. He glanced back at Juu, who was still waiting for the data base to come up. Cursing technology, he resumed his pac ing of the room.
As he walked around, he noticed that there were framed photos hung on every wall in the room. He stepped closer to examine the nearest ones, and then slowly made his way down the entire wall. Studying the photos of happy, smil ing people hoisting drinks or making silly faces, he felt a sudden clenching in his gut. He turned and went down the next wall. More pictures of people, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. They were all dressed in professional clothes and seemed to be having a good time. Juu watched while Vegeta walked purposefully around the room, staring intently at the pictures that were hung on the walls.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
He whipped his head around, jolted out of his concen tration. "Are these all Camelot members?" He pointed to the framed photos.
"Not necessarily. The pictures were taken at the corpo rate mixers my sister used to host."
"So, for example, the men in this group here," Vegeta pointed at a picture. "Aren't necessarily in Camelot's catalogue?"
Juu came over to study the picture herself. "No. See the photo next to it? That's my sister, and the two men standing with her are executives at a high-tech company that folded a couple of months ago. The executives were never members, but they hosted singles parties for their employees. Some of the workers later joined Camelot, but not all of them."
"Was Bulma ever in this room?" Vegeta asked.
"Yes. This is the room we generally use for the client's first visit and review of the catalogue. It's much easier to spread out here than in my office."
"When was she in here?"
"It must have been—" Juu gasped and looked at Vegeta, who had already put the pieces together. "Oh my God. It was on the night Renata Mendes was murdered. Bulma spent several hours in this room with me, going over the questionnaire and photos."
"The killer was never in the catalogue," Vegeta said. "God damn it. We've been chasing our tails for weeks, and he's been here all along." He turned to Juu. "I need to identify the men in every picture hanging in this room, and any other place in the offices where Bulma might have been."
"Most of the pictures have the names printed at the bot tom, or they have labels taped to the back. You read them to me and I'll start a list right now," Juu said, sitting at the computer.
"Okay. At the same time, we'll cross-reference that list with the catalogue, and eliminate anyone who is a Camelot client and has already been investigated. After that, we'll get Goku to expedite a background check on the remaining names of non-members."
Vegeta walked around the room, removing pictures and reading names to Juu, who typed them into the computer. Anyone who was a member had a flag placed on his file in case they needed to return to him in the future. When they came across a man who was not a client, his name was en tered on the new short list of suspects. Then Vegeta placed the picture on the table and went to the next photo. It took almost half an hour to enter all the names into the computer.
"Okay, now we're sure this new suspect list includes only names that were not in the Camelot database?" Vegeta asked.
"Yes," Juu said. "We've got twenty-seven men who appear in photos in this room but were never investigated as Camelot clients."
"Let's get this list to Goku and cross our fingers." Vegeta picked up his cell phone and called his partner.
Goku answered on the fourth ring.
"It's Vegeta. We fucked up big time, buddy." He quickly explained about the photos in the conference room and the list of twenty-seven men they had compiled.
"Shit," Goku said. "Shit. How did we miss that?"
"It doesn't matter. We caught it now. I just faxed the names over to you."
"I've got it," Goku said as someone handed him a fax marked URGENT. "I'll drop everything and get right on the new list."
"How long do you think it will take?"
"I'll pull in some of the other guys, but it will be at least an hour for a prelim check. Sit tight, partner. We'll get the bastard."
"I'll be here with Juu, running through the rest of the names and double-checking "
Goku hung up, then quickly dialed the number of the safe house. He started speaking as soon as the officer picked up.
"Diaz, its Son. I want you to stay with Bulma and Chichi for a couple of hours. We've had a big break, and I'm needed here at the precinct to follow this lead."
"No problem. I'll let Brown know he's in charge of se curing the perimeter alone until further notice."
"Right. If you need anything, you've got my cell. Don't tell the women yet. I don't want to get their hopes up," Goku said, then hung up.
He rushed into the room that housed the computer in vestigators, or the techno-nerds, as they were more or less affectionately known. The four people on duty were already checking through the list of names Goku had given them.
"Everybody, drop what you're doing and listen up. I've got a new list with twenty-seven names. These individu als have never been checked, and there's a strong possi bility our killer is among them. We'll divide the names among you, then I'll take the extras and use the spare ter minal over on the end."
There was some good-natured grumbling, but everyone closed files and waited to receive the new names. Goku took the last names for himself, then sat down at a com puter and began to run his searches. He wasn't nearly as fast as the others, but he was thorough.
Half an hour later, one of the technicians called him over.
"I've got a sealed juvenile record here. Thought you might want to take it and run. It was a N.C.P.D. arrest, so you should be able to dig around without too much trou ble. The guy was even fingerprinted."
Goku ripped the papers from the printer tray. "Yamcha Tillman. Fancy name. Any relation to Tillman Brothers Software?"
The technician typed briefly, then grinned at Goku. "He's a vice president and holds a seat on the board. His father, Gerald Tillman, is the president and CEO."
"A spoiled rich boy with a sealed juvenile record," Goku said gleefully. "Would your wife mind if I kissed you, Tom?"
"Get away from me, Son."
Goku laughed and waved the papers triumphantly. "I'm going down to Latent to see if we can do anything with the fingerprints taken from Tillman at the time of his arrest. Could you do some more digging and find out who the investigating officer was?"
"As long as you don't come near me," the technician yelled after Goku's retreating back.
Juu paced around the conference table, stopping occasionally to sift through the framed photos and criticize herself for not putting the pieces together sooner. "It's been so long since I even looked at these pictures. They were all taken before my sister died, be fore I was involved with Camelot. Still, I should have thought of it."
"It's okay," Vegeta said. "We all assumed Bulma had seen the guy in the catalogue. And you know what they say about assumption."
"It's the mother of all fuckups." He laid the police artist's sketch alongside the photos of several men. He moved down the table, comparing the drawing with the pictures, until he found one with a superficial resemblance.
Juu looked at the sketch, then at the photo, and frowned. "Other than the smile, I don't see much similarity."
She studied the picture Vegeta had selected. From the date, the photo had been taken at a corporate mixer a year ago. It featured a man in a business suit with a bored smile holding up his drink and wryly saluting the photographer.
"I think I've seen that man before," she muttered.
"You've been in the conference room a lot."
"No, I meant more recently." She flipped the picture over and read the caption, hoping it would jog her memory. "Yamcha Tillman, Vice President of Marketing at Tillman Brothers Software, comes along to offer moral support at his company's first meet and greet party." She frowned over the name, then turned the frame to look at the photo again. "I think he was in the office not long ago, but he didn't use the name Yamcha Tillman."
"Are you sure?" Vegeta asked.
"Absolutely. I would have remembered, because the Tillman's—father and son—are executives with Tillman Brothers Software. The company was one of my sister's biggest clients, so I would have paid special attention if I'd seen their name in my appointment book."
"Did you ever meet him or his father?"
"No. They ended the contract before I moved here. But I know I've met this man before. And his name wasn't Yamcha Tillman."
"Do you remember where you met him, and why?"
"We met here—recently. He wanted to join Camelot right away, but only if he could look through the catalogue first. Basically, he wanted to see if the women were worth paying to date."
Vegeta looked up. "Did you show him the catalogue?"
"No, it's strictly against our new policy. I told him he'd have to fill out a questionnaire and wait for a background check before he saw our female clients."
"Did he fill out a questionnaire?"
Juu shook her head. "He tried to pressure me to change the rules for him, but I wouldn't. So he put away his wallet and walked out."
"Did he say why he chose your dating service?"
"He must have read the name in the papers, because he asked about the police investigation."
Vegeta went still. "What name did this guy use?"
"I don't know, I'd have to check my calendar."
She hurried down the hall toward her office, with Vegeta following close behind. When she opened her computer calendar and ran through the appointments for the last week, he was leaning over her shoulder.
"There it is. Tuesday. Initial consultation with Jake Thompson," she said.
"Tillman, Thompson. It could be he was trying to hide his identity. Did he act embarrassed to be signing up with a dating service?"
Juu shook her head. "Too arrogant. Too confident, as well."
"Okay. Have Goku check out Jake Thompson and Yamcha Tillman as a priority." Vegeta shook his head in disgust at the work that would go into following up this new angle. "There have to be ten thousand Jake Thompson's in this country. We'll start with driver's license photos of the ones who are geographically close to N.C. and see what happens."
"I have a better idea," Juu said. "Follow me."
He hesitated, then went down the hall with her to a place that looked like some kind of equipment room.
"After the murder investigation started," Juu said, "and especially once a question had been raised about some clients, I had my IT manager set up a hidden digital camera in the reception area. We should have a photo graph of everyone who stopped at the desk and signed in."
"You're shitting me."
She grinned. "No. My IT manager said it would be easy to store the photos short term, as long as we didn't accu mulate too many of them. Didn't want to use up his pre cious disk space. I'll call him and ask where the files are saved. Vegeta handed Juu his cell phone, then waited as she called her technician and got instructions on how to call up the files on the server.
"Okay," she said. "Here's last week, so it should be un der the folder marked Tuesday."
They clicked through the photos in silence, pausing when they reached Juu's noon appointment. Vegeta held up the framed picture he had brought from the conference room and compared it with the grainy digital image on the screen in front of him. Then he compared it to the sketched image of the man who had threatened Bulma in Juu's backyard.
'Gotcha, you smug bastard. You took one risk too many, and now you're mine.'
"I'll need a copy of this digital photo to send to the lab," Vegeta said, looking at the computer. "Then we'll just pick up Mr. Thompson and ask him a few questions."
Vegeta took back his cell phone and dialed his partner's number.
"Goku, rush the background check on Yamcha Tillman. He had a meeting at Camelot last week, tried to look at the catalogue. He was using the alias Jake Thompson. I've compared photos of the two and they look good."
"Hell, Vegeta, are you reading minds now?" Goku asked.
"What have you got?"
"Yamcha Tillman has a juvenile record. I just put in a call to the lead investigator on the case."
"Was it a violent offense?" Vegeta asked.
"Looks like it. Reading between the lines of the closed case file, aggravated assault charges were initially brought against him, but they were later bumped down af ter the victim and main witness boarded a plane and re turned to Costa Alegre. She'd been working as a maid and cook in the home of Gerald Tillman, the father."
"Hispanic female, mid-twenties," Vegeta said, thinking of the string of murder victims.
"Shit, I hadn't thought of that. We can verify with the lead investigator. I'm guessing that Yamcha's daddy man aged to get the charges pleaded down to harassment, and got his son enrolled in court-ordered counseling. But not before the little bastard was booked and fingerprinted."
"You've got prints on file?" Vegeta asked sharply.
"I'm in the Latent Fingerprints lab right now. The tech nician is doing a quick search of prints from the crime scenes we've linked to the killer and comparing them to Yamcha Tillman. I've asked the technician to expedite manual verifications of any computer matches on the prints."
"We need to run a location check on Mr. Tillman, as well," Vegeta said.
"I called both his legal addresses already. The first is his father's estate, where a housekeeper answered and said the son had been in West Beaches for the last month or so. The second number is an upscale apartment complex in South County. No answer." Goku paused as the fingerprint technician came rushing over. "Hang on a sec, Vegeta. We might have something."
The technician waved the enlarged fingerprint she was holding. "I ran a second computer check of Tillman's prints against all known fingerprints in the system, hi ad dition to the ones from the crime scenes you requested," she said. "The computer showed a potential match be tween the old Tillman prints and a partial that was recov ered at a homicide in Northwest N.C. today. I've done a manual verification, and it looks solid to me."
"Nina, you're beautiful," Goku said. "Who's the inves tigating detective on the N.C. homicide?"
Goku picked up his cell phone again and raced down the hall. As he did, he explained to Vegeta about the poten tial match. "I'm going to hang up and call you on my desk phone, then conference in Gray. I'd be very interested to see what Yamcha Tillman was doing at this dead guy's apartment."
"I'll be right here with Juu," Vegeta said. "Call me."
Vegeta hung up, looked over at Juu, and squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Stop beating yourself up. You did great."
"Really. Thanks to you, we'll nail the little shit."
The man sat quietly behind a lilac bush, waiting for the police officer to make his six-minute circuit of the property where Bulma was staying. The officer con stantly kept moving and checked in regularly via his ra dio. Presumably he was checking in with his partner in the house, or possibly one of the dispatchers. It would make the timing of this operation critical, be cause he'd have to strike as soon as possible after one of these brief radio conversations. That would buy him the maximum amount of time to get into the house and get Bulma before the alarm went out. He was confident he could get to her in the short time he would have. He'd spent most of the morning and all of the afternoon watching the house, and he already knew which room belonged to Bulma. Although the cur tains had been closed, he'd seen her silhouette as she sat by the window. That curled hair of hers gave a very distinc tive profile.
Things were running smoothly so far. The only possible glitch was the fact that the roving police officer was wearing body armor. That would make his usual method of attack impossible, because the knife wouldn't pene trate a bullet-proof vest. He wasn't eager to try to slit the officer's throat-even if he managed it, the result would be too messy. In addition he risked losing the element of surprise, because he wasn't sure he could get the job done on the first pass. He was used to being much stronger than his victims. He supposed he could use his gun, but the noise would be unmistakable. He'd brought it along to ensure Bulma's cooperation, not to start shooting people-at least until he had her and both officers under control. Then he would use whatever he wanted, knife or gun or both together. The idea made him smile, even though it was another departure from the script he had laid out in his mind.
'It's a good thing I react quickly under pressure and can improvise,' Tillman told himself.
The properties in this neighborhood were large and had dense vegetation, which would be to his advantage. And the ground was damp and covered with a layer of fallen leaves, which would muffle his approach. He picked up one of the large landscaping stones that formed a border around the bush where be was hiding. Tillman hefted the weight of the rock in his hands and ran through what he would do several times. Then he checked his watch and waited in the dark for his chance.
Forty seconds later, the cop walked by on his umpteenth circuit of the property. He didn't notice the additional shadow in the bushes. Tillman rose up and smashed the rock into the back of the officer's head with both hands. The cop went down and stayed there, motionless. Tillman crushed the police radio under his foot and threw the officer's weapon deep into the bushes. Then he hit the man again several times for good measure.
With the first part of his mission accomplished, Tillman crept slowly toward the house.
Vegeta pounced on his cell phone when it rang. "Goku?"
"Yeah. I've got Gray on the line, and he was just about to tell me about the homicide case that came across his desk today. Go ahead, Freeza."
"We had a call this afternoon after some computer con sultant didn't make it in to work," Gray said in a grav elly voice. "Seems our caller and the consultant were in the middle of some computer game and he was impatient to get on with it. Anyway, the guy went over to the consul tant's apartment after lunch and found the body."
"And?" Vegeta asked impatiently.
"I'm getting there. The consultant-a kid, really-had been shot in the back of the head as he sat at his computer, so the place was a mess. But he did have a shit load of high-tech equipment and his friend hinted the kid might have been a semi-pro hacker who pissed off a customer."
Vegeta told himself to be patient. Gray was one of those people who told a story in his own way and at his own snail's pace. Pushing him just made him go slower.
"Who did he do his hacking for?" Vegeta asked.
"No idea. But he collected a paycheck from Tillman Brothers Software."
"Bingo," Vegeta said softly.
"Told you I'd get there," Gray retorted. "So imagine my surprise when Son called me with a match for the partial print we got off a monitor in the victim's apart ment, and it belonged to none other than a VP at Tillman Brothers Software."
"It could be coincidence," Vegeta said. "Tillman might have an explanation for being there. He was the kid's boss, after all. And the guy who's after Bulma uses a knife and only kills women."
"I'd still like to talk to him," Gray said. "I've had the computer technicians here going over the victim's equip ment since we brought it in. I figure if the kid was a hacker, whatever he was last working on might have something to do with why he was killed."
"So what was he doing?" Goku asked.
"The computer and printer had both been shut down improperly, so my guys are working on getting stuff from document recovery or some such thing. According to the browser history, the kid had been on a web page that enables reverse phone number searches. You know, getting the address and name when you only have a phone number?"
Vegeta didn't like that at all. "Any record of who he was looking up?"
"We couldn't tell until we powered up the printer. The techie here is a genius, and he managed to pull the last print job from the buffer memory thing, or whatever the hell it's called. Hang on, I've got a copy of it in the file." Gray made rustling sounds as he flipped through the papers on his desk. "Here it is. The document isn't much—just an address. Three two three Myrtle Lane, in North County."
"Kami. That's our safe house." Vegeta's hand clenched tightly around the phone. He heard Goku drop ping Gray off the conference with a promise to get back in touch soon.
"I'm less than ten minutes from there," Goku said to Vegeta. "I'll go."
"Damn it, I—" Vegeta stopped, knowing his partner was right. Vegeta was half an hour away, and he didn't have a unit with lights and siren. "I'll call Diaz and have him put the women in a secure upstairs room until you arrive. Call me on my cell the instant you get there."
"I'm gone," Goku said and hung up. He raced down the hall, shouting at people to get out of his way.
Vegeta wanted to keep his cell phone line open, so he ran back to Juu's office.
She took one look at his pale, grim face and said, "What's wrong? Is Bulma all right?"
Vegeta held up a hand to keep Juu quiet while he dialed the safe house's number on Juu's desk phone. He got Officer Diaz on the line within one ring.
"Where are the women right now?" Vegeta asked.
"Upstairs playing cards."
"Secure the house and get up there with them. The killer has your location."
"What! How in—"
"It doesn't matter," Vegeta cut in "Son is on his way right now. I want you to move the women into the upstairs room with the best locks and most limited access."
"The master bathroom," Diaz said instantly. "There's only a small window and two doors to protect."
"Good. Get them in there. Tell Brown to be extra care ful on his foot patrol."
"You got it." Vegeta hung up the phone and looked at his watch, count ing off the minutes, and willing his cousin to call.
"Gin," Chichi said. She laid down her winning hand and grinned at Bulma triumphantly.
"That's what, ten times in a row? We're going to have to handicap you." Bulma tallied up the points on a note pad. "Wait until Goku gets here, then I'll win some of my money back."
She looked up as the phone rang, then froze. A man was standing near the doorway behind Chichi, pointing a gun at her head. Chichi paused as she shuffled the cards, wondering at Bulma's sudden silence. She looked at her friend's ashen face and rigid posture, and realized something was very wrong. She jolted when a strange voice spoke from be hind her.
"Hello, Bulma. You aren't going to do anything stupid, like call for help, are you? Because if you do, I'll blow your friend's pretty little head away. Do we under stand each other?"
Bulma nodded numbly
"Don't move," Tillman said to Chichi. "Bulma, come over and stand next to me."
Bulma stood and wiped her clammy hands down the front of her jeans. She moved slowly to stand next to the man who was holding a gun on her best friend. He was tall, probably just over six feet. He had short dark hair and brown eyes, but other than that she didn't notice any thing outstanding about his features. Nor did he trigger any memories of the night she had run for her life. Yet she knew this was the man who meant to kill her.
"Excellent," he said. "You're being very cooperative this time." He shifted the gun to his left hand and pulled a knife from inside his dark jacket. In a heartbeat he had his hand wrapped around Bulma's neck and was holding the knife to the tender side of her throat. The gun stayed trained on Chichi.
"Okay. Now it's your turn. You can help with the cop downstairs. Come stand over here, to my left, about six feet away from me. Don't make any sudden moves, or I'll cut Bulma's throat and kill you before she hits the floor."
Chichi stood slowly and did as she was instructed. Downstairs Bulma heard Diaz moving around the ground floor quickly. Windows closed noisily and the front door banged shut, followed by the sound of the dead bolt slam ming into place.
'A little late for that,' she thought bitterly.
Tillman flinched when Officer Diaz called from down stairs.
"Bulma! Chichi! Which room are you in?"
"Answer him," Tillman said "Tell him where you are, nothing more."
Chichi spoke, but only a hoarse sound came out. She closed her eyes, cleared her throat, and tried again. "We're up here, in Bulma's bedroom."
"Stay there. I'll be right up," Diaz said, still locking everything downstairs.
"Now be quiet," Tillman said to Chichi, tightening his grip on Bulma. He had to think and think fast.
Chichi's eyes moved toward Bulma's. Both women knew they had to get away somehow, and to do that they would have to work together. Thinking frantically, Bulma looked around the room, then she motioned with a hand at her waist toward the open bathroom door behind Chichi. She prayed the man holding a gun on Chichi wouldn't be able to see the faint movement. Chichi blinked her understanding without turning her head, thinking the same thing Bulma was escape.
The bathroom sat between the two smaller upstairs bedrooms, and it was connected to each by a heavy wooden door. While a gun and knife stood between them and the hall door, if the women could get to the bathroom, they would have another way out. Both froze at the sound of footsteps on the back porch. Bulma could hear Diaz calling out to his partner on the ra dio, then using his voice alone.
Bulma motioned to Chichi with her hand again, this time pointing at herself. Then she pointed at the hallway. For emphasis, she once again pointed at Chichi and the bath room door, willing her to understand that Bulma would go for the hall door, while Chichi should go toward the bath room, through it, and into the master bedroom, where there was a door to the hallway. Chichi bit her lip, not liking the idea of splitting up. But it was their best chance of dividing the killer's attention, so she blinked again in agreement.
The man holding Bulma tensed as he heard heavy foot steps on the old wooden stairs of the house. Officer Diaz called out as he made his way up to them. She watched in horror as the man moved his gun away from Chichi's head and aimed instead at the doorway.
She realized that he was going to kill the officer, and probably Chichi as well. Their best chance for escape would be when the officer came through the doorway, dis tracting the killer. She wanted to cry out a warning to Diaz, to tell him of the danger, but she was very aware of the knife resting against her throat and the fact that the killer's gun could be pointed back to Chichi before the first word of warning left Bulma's mouth. But then she thought of Vegeta, and knew what she would do if he were the one coming up the stairs. Officer Diaz had a wife and children and grandchildren, whose pictures he showed at the least excuse. She couldn't just stand by while he was murdered. Frantically she thought back to Goku's brief self-defense instructions, and his advice on how to handle someone who grabbed her from behind.
The footsteps reached the top of the stairs. Bulma met Chichi's wide-eyed gaze to let her know that now was their chance. Without warning Bulma yelled and raked backward with her hand, gouging at the killer's eyes.
"He has a gun!"
Surprise loosened the killer's hold on her. She felt the sting of the knife on her neck as she jerked away from him. Instead of running, Chichi hurled herself at the killer, knocking him off balance and breaking his hold on Bulma. Only when Bulma was free did Chichi turn and race toward the bathroom.
"Run!" Bulma shouted as she threw herself toward the hall.
Bulma heard the bathroom door slam behind Chichi just as she reached the hallway. She ran smack into Officer Diaz, who was advancing cautiously down the hall with his weapon drawn.
"Go back!" she yelled at Diaz. He reached to pull her behind him when the sound of a gunshot rang out. Bulma screamed as the officer crumpled at her feet, blood pouring from his head. Knowing there was nothing she could do for him now, she ran past his body, desperate to draw the killer away from Chichi.
A hand grabbed Bulma from behind, yanking her to a stop. She stood there panting as she felt the killer slide his arm around her neck and lay the knife along the cut al ready bleeding sluggishly there.
"I really am going to enjoy hurting you, Bulma." Tillman dragged her past the fallen officer and down the hall. "Now, where's that little friend of yours? We'll take care of her, then you can see what I have in store for you once we get to the special place I've chosen." His voice was rough with adrenaline and almost dreamy at the same time.
Knowing the bathroom was a dead end-literally-Chichi hadn't stayed there. As soon as the killer followed Bulma into the hallway, Chichi had tiptoed across the at tached bedroom to the open hall door. She could hear the man talking to Bulma. They were coming back down the hall toward her, cutting off any escape. Chichi knew if the man found her, she would die.
'There would be no witnesses to Bulma's kidnapping. I've got to get out of here! I've got to call the police and help Bulma, and I can't do that if I'm dead. And dead is what I'll be if I stay glued to the middle of the room like an idiot!'
But she couldn't get out-the hallway was the only es cape, and the killer was already there. With shaking hands, she closed and locked the bedroom door and thought frantically. The lock wouldn't keep the killer out for long. She had to hide somewhere in the room. That way she could follow the killer when he left with Bulma, and somehow find a way to give her friend another chance to escape. Briefly Chichi considered the window, but she already knew it was warped by age and wouldn't open easily. It was the old-fashioned type with multiple tiny panes that would take too long to break.
The killer began pounding on the locked door. "I'll kill Bulma if you don't open this door."
"He'll kill me anyway, Chi! Don't open the door!"
Chichi knew her friend was right. She looked around the room one more time, then slowly looked up. There was a small trapdoor leading to the attic. She grabbed the chair from a nearby desk, stood on it, and slid back the bolt that held the trapdoor in place. She pulled on the release cord as hard as she could, then jumped back when she was almost knocked over by the folding ladder that tumbled down in response to her tugs. It came partway down and stopped. She scrambled up the first few rungs to the attic, kicked the chair into a corner, and pulled herself up the rest of the way. Keeping a grip on the cord so that it wouldn't dangle from the ceiling, she strained to pull the staircase closed behind her. Just as she managed it, the bedroom door be low crashed open.
"Come out right now or I'll kill your friend."
"Don't do it!" Bulma called.
Chichi held her breath and didn't move. She prayed the man wouldn't look up. For a few seconds she thought she'd pulled it off. Then she heard him laugh.
"Come out of the attic, you stupid bitch."
"Don't listen, Chi!" Bulma cried out, then choked as the killer jerked his arm even tighter around her neck.
'Bitches.' Tillman thought, fighting the panic that came whenever he wasn't in control of women. 'Stupid bitches can't even follow simple orders. Too much time had passed since he'd fired the gun. Some neighbor would have called the police by now. And even if he got lucky and no one called, the police were overdue for their radio check. I have to get Bulma out of here now.' He didn't have time to chase her friend through the rafters—if that was where she had gone. 'She could have escaped through the window, and even now might be calling 911.' Swearing loudly, he pushed Bulma toward the chair lying on its side and pointed the gun at her head.
"Pull the chair over here, then get on it and throw the bolt. Quickly!"
Bulma climbed up on the chair and slid the bolt closed. Anyone up there was now trapped. She fervently hoped that Chichi was long gone by now, yet she had a sick feel ing her friend was on the other side of the trapdoor, wait ing for a chance to make another break for help. Tillman yanked Bulma off the chair, dragged her back ward, and fired four shots around the outline of the trap door.
"Chi!" The blunt side of the killer's knife choked off Bulma's scream. When she was silent, he turned the sharp side to her neck again.
"Come away with me, my sweet prey. I have something very special for you."
Chichi waited in a dark corner of the attic until she heard footsteps leaving the bedroom below her. The attic was hot, dusty, and she was trapped in it. A shaft of light came through a small window on the far side. Care fully she made her way over to it. She heard the killer on the stairs and knew she'd only have one chance to open the window. It probably wouldn't go quietly. Taking a breath, Chichi undid the latch on the window and pushed on it as hard as she could. She was astonished when it opened outward. The yard was about thirty feet below.
'Feet first,' Chi, she told herself. 'Dangle from your fin gertips and then let go.'
Turning around, she wiggled out the small window frame. Once she was past her hips, she pushed the rest of her body through the narrow opening, then held herself for a moment by her fingers. Bulma's voice came from below and to the left, asking the killer what he'd done with the other police officer. He didn't answer. Chichi held her breath and waited for them to pass. Once they were out of earshot, she closed her eyes, pushed herself back as far as she could, and let go. She tried to roll as she landed, but ended up taking the force of the fall on her left ankle. Biting her lip against the pain shooting through it, she lurched to her feet and headed after Bulma. When Chichi peeked around the large shrub at the end of the drive, she saw brake lights come on a block down the street. She had no chance of chasing after a car in her condition, but she might get close enough to see the li cense plate. Awkwardly she went down the shadowed side of the street as fast as she could, ignoring the pain, run ning her heart out and following the car for several blocks before it turned onto a main street. The killer gunned the engine. A few seconds later, even the car's brake lights vanished.
Chichi stood in the middle of the street and screamed Bulma's name. Then she turned and ran unevenly back toward the house, repeating, "North City seven two three. North City seven two three."
Goku drove recklessly down the narrow suburban streets—dispatch hadn't been able to raise either of the officers assigned to guard Bulma for over five minutes. Backup units were on the way, but he would arrive before they did. Without a pause be rolled through a stop sign and turned right onto Myrtle Lane. About half a block from the house he saw someone running awkwardly down the middle of the street. Ice congealed in his gut when he recognized the dark hair and petite frame. He stopped the car with a screech of the brakes, then bailed out and grabbed Chichi's arms. Her white face had dark smudges on it, and her pupils were so dilated that he could see no color in her eyes, even in the bright glare of the headlights.
"What happened? Where's Bulma?"
"He took her in his car. North City seven two three."
"Easy, Chi." Goku slid an arm around her. "Slow down and tell me what happened."
"The killer got into the house," Chichi said in a flat voice. "Bulma and I split up, and we almost got away. Then he shot Officer Diaz and took Bulma. I managed to hide. I went out the window and tried to follow, but they were in a car and it was going too fast. North City seven two three."
"What does that mean?" Goku asked over the sound of her shuddering breathing. "Chi, look at me. You're okay. Slow down and breathe deeply. You're safe."
"But Bulma isn't!" Chichi panted. "His license plate be gan seven two three. I didn't see the rest, but they looked like North City plates. Red car, American, like a rental. He took her, Goku. He took her and I couldn't do anything "
Goku reached through the open window to grab his ra dio and report the kidnapping of a witness from protective custody. He described Bulma and the vehicle, including the partial plates. He paused to ask Chichi for a description of the suspect, then relayed that information as well. He finished by calling for multiple paramedic units and backup to the safe house. As soon as the dispatcher put out the all points bulletin, Goku threw the radio back in the car.
"Lock yourself in my car," he said to Chichi. "I have to check on Diaz and Brown."
Chichi took a step, cried out, and then collapsed against Goku.
"Your leg?" Goku asked, supporting her.
Chichi nodded and breathed through her teeth against the nauseating pain. "I think I broke something."
Goku lifted her off her feet and headed for the house, where med-techs would soon be arriving with lights and sirens. "How the hell did you do that?"
"I jumped out the attic window."
"Kami, woman. That's got to be a thirty-foot drop," Goku said, eyeing the tiny window on the tight side of the house.
"Tell me about it."
Goku strode up the steps, put Chichi in a rocker on the porch, and unlocked the front door. Sirens screamed, coming closer to the house with every second.
"You'll be safe here while I check on Diaz," Goku said. "Okay?"
Chichi nodded and wrapped her arms around herself for warmth while official vehicles pulled up from all direc tions and armed men leaped out. Very quickly Goku was back. She looked up at him, afraid to ask how Diaz was.
"He's alive," Goku said. "Looks like a bad furrow on the side of his head, but his pulse is good."
Chichi listened numbly while Goku gave orders to the others to help Diaz and look for the missing officer. Then he sat next to Chichi and pulled out his cell phone. He took hold of her hand and squeezed it as he prepared to make the most difficult call of his life.
A/N: Well I hoped you all enjoyed this chapter. I like to thank everyone who has taken the time to review my chapters.