"Did you feel loved when you were growing up?"
"Did you get along with your family?"
"I guess you could say that."
"What about your parents?"
"They were average. They yelled a lot, fought a lot. Dad liked to cuss."
"Did they ever hit you?"
"I don't want to talk about that."
"Stop trying to pick my brain!"
The crime scene was awash in blood, its warm, coppery scent mixing with the fresh odor of rain that had fallen during the night.
New Orleans Police Department Detective Nick Marconi pulled on a pair of latex gloves and popped a square of mint gum into his mouth. Weary resignation set in as he sidestepped the overturned trash receptacle serving the far corner of the tiny park. Crime scene techs swarmed the scene, taking pictures and eyeing the rain-dimpled sand for any evidence, no matter how small, the murderer may have left behind.
Even with the icy tang of gum cleansing his palate, the stench of death made Nick's stomach buck. He cursed himself for not getting the jar of menthol salve out of the sedan.
"Mornin', Marconi. Got a grisly one for you." Orleans Parish Medical Examiner, Pal Stewart, bobbed his thick gray head in greeting. "She's cut from ear to ear and exsanguinated."
"Well, hell. That explains all the blood." Nick looked at Pal, who raised his eyebrows.
Then he steeled himself and looked down at the nude corpse. The woman lay on her side facing away from him, her pale hips cocked at an odd angle. Blood had crusted in her spiky blond hair, and a bright silver hoop earring stood out in stark contrast to her purplish right earlobe. The sand beneath her was stained a dull red, made pale by the rain.
"It's a lot, but not enough."
"What do you mean?" Nick frowned. "The ground's saturated with it."
Pal walked around the body. "He drained her blood here--" He turned and acknowledged a row of metal swing sets behind them. "And took it with him."
"Son of a bitch." Revulsion rolled through Nick as he remembered finding his sister, Jasmine, lying murdered in similar fashion five years before. Not all her blood had been drained, but her throat had been cut and her body left in her apartment for him to find.
He shook off the picture of her lifeless body sprawled in her kitchen on her brand new linoleum, and forced his mind back to this woman. This case.
How had the killer had the time to bleed the woman out and not be detected? This was a busy area.
He eyed the dirty sand beneath their feet. No footprints marred it. No cigarette butts, no trash.
Pal shook his head. "Damned rain took away most of our evidence. The boys have been pretty careful, but don't guess it would matter if they'd danced a jig."
"Don't think so. This one's about ten steps up from the usual doped-up streetwalker."
Nick digested that. This neighborhood had gone down in the last five years, and contained more than its fair share of crack houses.
He eyed the corpse. If this woman wasn't from around here, she'd gotten in way over her head, maybe with one of the many street gangs now active in New Orleans.
"Ready?" Pal asked, his dark eyes hooded as he bent toward the body. "I need to roll her."
"Go ahead." Nick wanted to look away while the man flipped the body, but he made himself watch as her arm flopped awkwardly against the stained sand and her legs splayed out like broken scissors.
She reminded Nick of a ragged paper doll, the kind Jasmine used to help his baby sister, Bonnie, cut out. The memory surprised him. He hadn't thought of Bonnie in a very long time.
Pal leaned close and examined the deep gash that gaped like a sickening second smile in the woman's neck. "I'll know more after the autopsy, but she was cut with an extremely sharp knife."
"A hunting knife, maybe?"
Pal adjusted one of his latex gloves. "I'd guess filet."
Nick pulled out his notebook and jotted down that information.
He still hadn't gotten a good look at her face. Didn't want to. It would only lead to more horrifying flashbacks of Jasmine lying dead.
He rocked back on his heels. "How long has she been here?"
"Six to eight hours, I'd say, because rigor's set in to her head and neck." Pal fingered the woman's purple jaw. "And the lividity doesn't blanch. Of course, there's not much of it due to the loss of blood."
Nick dropped to his haunches beside the woman's slim feet. Her toenails were painted a soft pink, an unusual color for a hooker. Angry red rope burns circled her ankles.
"She was hung upside down."
"Yep. Above the second swing," Pal said. "There's a faint ring in the sand where I'm guessing the suspect put his bucket."
"For the blood."
"What a sick prick." Nick made a fist. Little kids played on those swings, their joy-laced cries filling the air with hope. Now, their playground had been tainted.
He rose and stepped around the woman so he could see her face. It was distorted and purple, a result of her grisly death. She had long blond eyelashes, a small nose, and a heart-shaped mole on her right cheek.
"Oh my God." Nick went still. "It can't be."
"You know her?" Pal asked.
"Maybe." Nick dropped to his knees and examined her face more closely.
He looked up.
"It's Maria Talley." He stabbed a hand through his short hair. "I met her at the University of New Orleans, my junior year."
"Did she live around here?"
"No," Nick said. "Kenner. She graduated in education, and teaches--taught--at a fancy private school there. It's a long damned way from here."
"Rich folks aren't immune to drugs." Pal rubbed his chin. His jowls were red from the cold. "Are you sure it's your friend?"
"Yeah. It's Maria." Nick shook his head and stared down at her distorted face. "We dated about two months."
Pal made a sound between a snort and a laugh. "Well. She won't be seeing anyone else now, will she?"
"Guess not." A sliver of guilt pierced Nick as he pushed himself up and looked around. Cop humor aside, the woman had just died. They ought to show her some respect.
A big white news van from one of the local affiliates pulled up to the curb just outside the fence. He cursed.
"Damned vultures." Pal shook his head. "They pounce on every dead body like it's fresh meat. Doesn't matter if it's in the Quarter or out on Bullard Avenue. Even in this crappy part of town."
"I don't know what Maria would be doing down here."
"The killer was probably trying to make a statement."
"Was she raped?"
"No external trauma, no fluids that I can tell. I'll run a kit, though."
"Any needle marks?"
"Not so far. I'll know more after the autopsy."
Nick nodded. He hoped to hell his college friend hadn't fallen that far.
He watched a pair of uniforms square off with the reporter and cameraman spilling from the van, then turned and examined the area more closely.
The park was no more than a quarter-mile across, with run-down brick buildings on three sides. Its fourth side was fronted by a row of dilapidated houses with listing porch railings and ratty postage-stamp yards.
The early March air was cold, and on the corner next to Nick, two homeless men hovered over a rusty barrel filled with burning wood. Their probing gazes bounced over him before landing on the photographer taking digital close ups of the hard-packed ground beneath the swing sets.
Crime scene tape fluttered in the chilly breeze.
"Time to load her up," Pal said. His voice carried a high-pitched wheeze. He massaged his barrel chest. "I'll probably cut on her late this afternoon, after I finish with the Bradley kid and his dad."
Nick nodded and stripped off his gloves. Bobby Bradley, age ten, was the victim of a murder-suicide. His father had shot him in the head before blasting himself to hell with a shotgun. Anger tightened Nick's chest. He hadn't worked that case, and he was glad. Dead kids killed his appetite.
He interviewed the frightened teenager who'd found Maria's body, put two uniforms to work canvassing the neighborhood, and then drove back to the District One station to file his report.
District Investigative Unit Commander Rod Parker headed him off before he could reach his desk.
"Marconi," Parker called from across the room, his ring of white hair bright beneath the brilliant fluorescent lights. "In my office. Now."
Nick muttered a nasty oath. Ever since his partner, Danny Robson, had been gunned down in a bad bust, Parker had been watching him like a hawk. Like he expected him to eat a bullet for lunch.
He jerked his tie straight and skirted a desk. Yeah, depression weighed on him like a lead vest. And the good Lord knew he'd considered suicide--but so far he'd woken up every day with a reason not to pull the trigger.
His defenses flew up the second he entered Parker's office.
"Shut the door," his boss said, settling into the creaky leather chair behind his desk.
His stomach turning flips, Nick did as he was asked.
"I'll stand. Thanks." If he was about to be reamed out, he wanted to be able to make a quick exit. It was safer that way.
Parker's long face was dour. He put both thick hands on the desk blotter and studied Nick. "Suit yourself."
"Commander, if this is because I passed off on the Bradley case--"
"That's part of it," Parker said, his brow crinkling into a tight frown. "You've never done that before. Hell, I'm worried about you."
"I'm fine, sir."
"No, you're not. You're wound tighter than a watchmaker's ass."
"Hear me out, son." Parker held up his hand to shut him up. "After Danny died, you didn't take even one day off."
"He was my partner, not my wife."
"Don't give me that. You and Danny were partners for four years. I know how much you cared for him."
"I'm dealing. End of story."
"Have you ever talked about what happened that night to anybody besides the Public Integrity Division?"
"No. Being questioned by PID was enough." Nick clenched his hands. Since Jasmine and Danny died, he'd had no one in whom to confide. No friends, no family. He and his sister had been close, and Danny had been his best friend. Still, he had coped. "There wasn't any need."
"I've arranged for you to talk with a psychiatrist--"
"I don't need to talk to some shrink," Nick broke in, his voice rising in anger. "Come on, Commander. I'm fine. Just fine. I just need to be on the job."
Parker leaned back in his chair, his hawk eyes raking Nick's face. "You don't have a choice this time."
A knot of dread lodged itself in the center of Nick's chest. He eyed his boss with suspicion. "What are you saying?"
Parker drew in a deep breath, as if fortifying himself for battle. Then he said slowly and succinctly, "This order came down from above. Remember that."
"What is it?"
"You either see the doctor we've lined up for you, or you turn in your badge and weapon. Today. For keeps."
The Commander's words hit Nick like a blow to the solar plexus. He reeled back a step. "You can't mean that."
"I'm afraid I do, son." Parker came to his feet. "The higher ups believe you're a danger to yourself, not to mention the general public. You need help."
"I do not."
Parker rounded the desk and folded his arms. "It's time to stop running, Nick. The deaths of your parents and sisters took their toll on you--and Danny's murder was the last straw."
"I'm dealing with it."
"By not dealing with it."
"Commander..." Despair flooded Nick. He had no family, and damned few friends except those in the department. Without his job, he had nothing. No more reason not to pull that trigger. He raked a hand through his close-cropped hair. "I just can't--"
"Agree to talk to the doctor, and you can stay on the force. Hell, we need you around here. You know that, what with your huge caseload. But this has got to be your decision. I can't make it for you."
Nick pivoted on his heel and came face to face with the chipped oval mirror Parker had hung on the wall behind the door. A gasp caught in his throat. He hadn't taken a good long look at himself since his partner had been gunned down, and seeing his haggard face now was a shock.
His dark hair stood up in disarray, his ice-blue eyes were bloodshot, and deep purple circles underscored them, making his face look sunken. Add the blue-black stubble covering his chin, and he looked like he'd been on a month-long bender.
Parker stepped up behind him. "Like what you see?"
Nick scrubbed both hands down his face. Hell, no. But he didn't want to tell Parker that.
"You're working too damned hard. Not resting, volunteering for overtime every time I turn around." Parker's voice was grave. "It's like you're on a mission to fill up every second."
Nick shot him a wry look. "You may be right." He paused, for effect. Then he said, "But you sure as hell can't call me dull."
Parker laughed sharply. "You've got me there. Dull, you're not. I never know what you're gonna do next. Your arrests are up in spite of everything, and you've had solid evidence on your last ten or twelve cases. Enough to put those perps away for a long, long time."
"And yet you're ordering me to see Dr. Myers."
"No. He's about to be deployed overseas to Iraq with his National Guard unit. You'll be talking to a civilian this time."
"I don't want to talk to some pointy-head geek in a three-piece suit with no idea what we do here. Hell, Commander. I can't--"
"This doctor might wear a suit, but I don't know that for a fact. As for the geek part--" He shrugged. "I have it on good authority that her head isn't pointed."
"Her head?" The higher ups expected him to talk to a woman about being a cop? About finding his sister dead and watching blood spew from his best friend's neck after he was shot by a fifteen-year-old at point blank range? About dealing with death and gore 24/7?
"I hear she's damned good."
"No fucking way." Nick shook his head. It would never work. No woman, unless she was a cop herself, would ever understand his world.
Parker twisted his lips. "Her name is Gracie Simmons. Her office is downtown, on Canal. Give her a chance. If it doesn't work out after a couple of sessions, we'll find you someone else."
"Why don't we just do that now?"
"Because this one's damned good. Pretty, too."
Nick stuck his hands in his pockets. If Commander Parker thought the woman was attractive, she was probably in her mid-fifties, some do-gooder former hippie with graying helmet hair who thought she knew how to read a man. He blew out a disgusted breath. Damn my sorry luck.
Parker picked up an index card from his desk and held it out. "Here's her address. Your appointment is today at four o'clock. Don't be late."
"Today?" Nick ignored the card and gaped at his boss. He had witnesses in three cases to interview, and he'd planned on sitting in on Maria's autopsy this afternoon. "I can't."
"You will, or you're out of here." Parker extended his hand. "Take the damned card."
Nick stared at it a second, then reluctantly accepted it. The ticket to his own demise.
Gracie Simmons stepped around her desk and rechecked her appointment book for the fifth time that day. Since lunch, she'd dealt with a woman with bi-polar disorder, an obsessive-compulsive fireman, and a shy teenager trying to find herself. Next up was a burned-out cop.
Not the best way to wind up the day. She rubbed her tense neck. Her nerves had been on edge ever since this morning, when she'd met with him. She closed her eyes and pictured her nurse's neat handwriting on the crisp new folder. Thirty-nine year old white male. Presenting with non-specific complaints of depression and anxiety. The description didn't even come close.
She was afraid he was deeply disturbed. His cool, calculated answers to her questions had scared the hell out of her.
"Dr. Simmons?" Ashley, her part-time twenty-something receptionist, stuck her head in the door. Her long brown hair gleamed in the muted light. "Would you like some coffee before your four o'clock arrives?"
"Yes, thank you." Although it would take a hell of a lot more than a brimming mug of high-octane java to get her through her next appointment. She never should have volunteered to handle cases for the police department while their regular psychiatrist was on military leave. Her dad had been a cop. A bad cop. And her childhood had been hell because of it. She certainly had no love for law enforcement professionals, especially those with problems on the job. If Dr. Myers wasn't a good friend, she'd call him back and tell him she'd changed her mind.
Her head pounded. She reached into her drawer for an oversized bottle of ibuprofen.
Ashley came in and set a brimming cup of cream and sugar-laced coffee on her desk. "Your patient's in the waiting room."
"Already?" Gracie eyed the sunburst clock on the wall in surprise. She'd expected this guy to balk. "He's ten minutes early."
Ashley shrugged. "At least you'll get out of here on time today."
"Shall I send him in?"
"Give me five minutes, okay?" Gracie picked up her coffee cup and took a small sip. "I need to do some deep breathing exercises."
"Sure." Ashley smiled. "Yoga's great when you're feeling tense."
Gracie had to agree. She downed another mouthful of steaming coffee, set down her cup, and leaned back in her chair. If only she had time to get out her mat and do some simple stretches. Her body was as tight as a bow string.
She rested her hands in her lap, palms up, and closed her eyes. After a few seconds, she drew in a long breath, careful to fill her lungs and expand her ribcage. The stretch relaxed her. She held the breath for another long moment, and then slowly released a slow, steady breath.
A sense of calm enveloped her.
She repeated the action three more times, growing more relaxed with each extended breath. Her neck grew less taut. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Her cell phone rang. She muttered an ugly word.
After two more rings, she yanked it from her purse and stared down at the display. Jerry Howard. The annoying guy she'd dated for a while, and was now trying to blow off. There was no chemistry between them. No attachment, at least on her part. Why wouldn't he take no for an answer?
A brisk knock rattled the door. Gracie blinked, and struggled to orient herself.
The knock rang out again.
"Come in," she said, quickly putting the phone on silent and dumping it back into her purse. She sat up straight in her chair.
The door opened and Ashley appeared, followed by the most handsome man Gracie had ever seen. At least, he would be handsome if he got some sleep and maybe shaved once in a while. He was tall and rugged, with short jet-black hair and glacial blue eyes. Inky stubble rimmed his taut jaw. His gray suit fit him, but his coat looked like it had been worn for a week.
"This is your four o'clock," Ashley said, her eyes glued to the strapping man beside her despite his dishevelment. "Detective Nick Marconi."
She stood there as if rooted to the floor.
"Thank you, Ashley." Gracie said, rising. Her mouth was as dry as river sand.
Ashley didn't move.
Nick's full lips curved in a weary, knowing smile that conveyed a world of information to Gracie. Namely, that he was arrogant, smug, and didn't want to be in her office.
She stared at her leering receptionist. "Ashley?"
"Oh. My. I'm so sorry, Dr. Simmons," Ashley said, her pale cheeks flushing a bright crimson. She quickly exited the office and pulled the door shut behind her.
Its solid click made Gracie imagine a coffin nail being driven home. Wonderful. She dragged her perturbed gaze to Detective Marconi, who stood right where Ashley had left him. His broad shoulders seemed to fill the room.
"You need to know I don't want to be here," he said, his angry glare challenging her to refute him.
She forced a smile and rounded the desk. "Why is that?"
"Because I don't need a shrink."
"Your file says otherwise."
His eyebrows shot up. "You have my jacket?"
She folded her arms. "Only what's necessary for me to know in order to help you."
"Then you should know I don't need your help."
"Why would I think that?"
"Because I'm a damned good cop."
Gracie reeled as if she'd been slapped. Her father had said the very same thing right before he'd been arrested.
I'm a damned good cop. Don't worry. They've got nothing on me.
Marconi's eyes darkened. "Something wrong, Doctor?"
"No," Gracie said much too quickly. Heat suffused her face. Two minutes, and he was already getting to her. She had to get a grip. Breathe. She jerked her gaze away from him and indicated the two leather chairs across from her desk. "Please...have a seat."
"I'd rather stand."
She pinned him with her most daunting gaze. "I'd rather you didn't." She hesitated an extra beat, just for emphasis. "Please sit. Detective."
His brooding stare sent a jolt of sexual awareness over her nerves. Without another word, he sauntered over and dropped into one of the chairs. His nearness took her breath.
She retreated to the other side of her desk.
"I know how this works." A muscle jumped in his square jaw. "Everything I say goes back to the department."
"What do you mean?"
"I give them my conclusions, not specifics from our conversations."
"So that means I can tell you I beat up a suspect?"
"Yes, and I can recommend you not return to duty."
"Exactly." She sat down and opened his file. Volatile. Closed off emotionally. Sometimes hostile to authority. The notations had been highlighted with a fluorescent yellow marker.
He put his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands in front of him. One leg bounced up and down like he had a spring in his foot.
She jerked her gaze away from his taut, muscled thighs and reread the most recent entry in his file about the night Detective Danny Robson had been killed on duty. According to the commander's slanted scrawl, Marconi had lost control and punched a fellow officer in the face.
She took a deep breath, and plunged ahead. "Your partner was recently killed."
"Want to tell me about it?"
"No." He stared down at his hands.
She picked up her pen. The urge to throw it at him was strong. "Your file says Detective Robson went into a convenience store alone and happened upon an armed robbery."
Detective Marconi's ice-filled eyes flicked to hers. "That story was in the Times-Picayune."
"I read it." She raised her chin. "The information is also in your file."
"Waste of paper."
"Do you hate the medical profession in general, Detective, or psychiatrists in particular?"
"I hate shrinks." He practically spat the word. Then he sat up very straight. "Nobody needs to know what goes on in my head."
"My thoughts are private." He gripped his knees so tightly his knuckles turned white.
"No, you don't." He leapt up and began to pace across the room. "People have always tried to pick my brain."
Taken aback, Gracie stared at him as his words echoed in her head. He had said almost the same thing just this morning. She pressed her hands against her desk. "Are you..are you referring to the months after your sisters died?"
He wheeled and slapped both hands on the desk, looming over her like her father used to when he was trying to intimidate her. It had worked then, and it was working now. Nick's sheer masculinity sent her reeling. She pressed back in her chair.
"You leave my sisters out of this." He ground his teeth.
"I can't," she said, desperate to appear calm when she wanted to leap up and run away. "Their murders had a profound effect on you."
"I've dealt with it."
"Really? Then why are you so upset?" she asked. Up close, his keen eyes were two mesmerizing azure pools. She put her hand on the edge of the desk to keep from tumbling into them headfirst.
He pushed himself upright. His nostrils flared. "I'm sorry. I can't--" He broke off and shook his head. "Never mind."
"You lost your younger sister Bonnie when you were practically a child yourself. That must have been tough."
"You have no idea." He prowled the room like a caged tiger.
She rubbed her forehead. It should be easier to think with him ten steps away, but just being in the same room with him muddled her brain. She hadn't had a real boyfriend in over a year. Maybe that was why she was reacting to him this way. She stared down at his file. "You lost your parents in 2003. Then five years ago, you lost your other sister."
"Yeah, I did." He halted and stared at the closed door. His broad shoulders sagged. "Jasmine. She was two years younger than me."
"Were you close?"
"What do you think?" He turned and pinned her with that intense, feline gaze. "Our parents died. We had no one else."
"So for the past five years you've been alone."
Yeah. Except for Danny, who was dead now, too. Nick rolled his shoulders as the pain of his partner's death slammed him in the gut again. His hollow heart shattered, as if it were made of glass. He'd never been so damned empty. But he was making it. He always did.
So why was he even bothering to answer this smart, sexy doctor's carefully worded questions? He'd vowed to mumble his way through the session and get the hell out of here.
Was it because she had the most beautiful jade green eyes he'd ever seen? Because she seemed to really listen to him? Or was he so starved for affection that he'd react this way to attention from any living, breathing woman?
"Detective, your file says you've never married." Her lilting voice broke into his thoughts. "Do you date?"
He turned. "Only women who don't know me."
"Why is that?"
"Because I'm not a nice guy."
She blinked. Her doctor's mask slipped, if only for a moment. Nick caught a quick glimpse of the real Dr. Gracie Simmons--edgy and vulnerable, yet strong--before it slid back into place. His admiration of her went up a notch.
She swallowed. "Do you hurt women?"
"Not physically," he said, beginning to regret baiting her. She made him feel good, and that hadn't happened in so long he didn't know how to react. He clenched his hands.
Her mouth curved, and she rested her elbows on the desk. "So you're the love 'em and leave 'em type?"
"Love never enters into it." He never let himself get that close to anyone. Why should he? The people he loved always died. His sisters, his mom and dad. Danny. Fresh pain arrowed through him as he recalled the solid thunk of that suspect's bullet plowing into his partner's throat just above his brand new Kevlar vest.
"You must feel something for the women you date."
"I feel lust." He leveled a hot gaze her way. "Sex is a great way to unwind after viewing a murder scene."
She squirmed in her chair.
He was being an ass, but he couldn't stop himself. He had to fend her off before she touched his fragile heart. "Keeps me in fighting trim, too. The more often I get off, the more calories I burn. You know how it is. Don't you?"
Distaste shadowed her face. She tapped her pen against his file and pointedly ignored his question. "Do you ever experience any sexual dysfunction?"
"Of course not." He scoffed at her. "Come on, Doc."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, you know." A tiny crease appeared between her eyebrows. "Most men experience that problem at some time in their lives. In your profession, it's quite common. Being in homicide--"
"I never have any trouble getting it up."
"You shouldn't be embarrassed." She put down her pen. "It's perfectly normal for a man who sees what you see. Moral decay, evil people. Death."
"I don't have that problem." Anger flared within him. He knew what she was trying to do. She was trying to make him angry enough to let down his guard. Well, it wasn't going to work.
In fact, he thought she was squirming now. He'd see how she reacted if he really punched all her buttons. He quirked his mouth and dropped his hand to his zipper.
Unable to stop himself, he stalked toward her. "Want a demonstration?"