HUSH LITTLE BABY
Yoko Tanaka stood beside her rental car wondering what the hell she was doing here. Up ahead was the restaurant. It looked different from the pictures on the Internet, smaller somehow. The front was a slightly different colour, too, the orange paint more vivid than she remembered. She’d definitely got the right place, though. Correct name, correct logo, correct address. People were moving behind the windows. She could see lips framing conversations, forks and glasses travelling towards mouths, waitresses keeping busy.
So what now? The answer was simple. She should climb back into her car and head on up to Tampa. Do that and nobody would be any the wiser. That would have been the sensible thing to do. The sane thing. But she didn’t do that. Instead, she walked across the parking lot to the entrance and went inside. Later, when things turned bad, she would remember this as the crossroads moment.
The first thing she noticed was the lonely sound of a solo piano. This wasn’t a recording, that much was clear. Live music has a unique ambience, a unique energy. No recording could ever reproduce that. The pianist hit an unmistakeable run of chords and she recognised the tune. Jimi Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. She’d always loved this song.
Yoko pulled the restaurant door closed and a cloud of Italian food smells enveloped her, eclipsing all thoughts of the music. Her last meal of any note was a hurried breakfast bagel at her desk in Quantico, ten hours ago and a thousand miles north of here. She’d eaten on the flight, but airline food could never be classed as real food.
The maître d’ greeted her with a smile and led her to an intimate two-seat table hidden away amongst the plants and shadows. It was a relief to get into the air-conditioned cool of the room. Mid-September and Florida was baking in daytime temperatures well into the nineties. Early evening, and it was still hot.
There were around thirty tables in total, mostly occupied. They were arranged on three levels, seemingly at random. The furniture was a mix of designs and there was no uniformity. Cohesion came from the fact that everything was made from dark wood. White walls, a white-tiled floor, and plenty of pictures and greenery to break up the monotony. Potted palm trees were scattered around the room, and trestles covered in creeping plants had been positioned to create little pockets of privacy. The pictures featured bright blasts of red, yellow and orange. Sunshine in a frame.
The maître d’ pulled out a chair and she sat down. He gave her a menu, reeled off the specials, then asked what she wanted to drink. She was tempted to order a double whisky, but common-sense kicked in and she ordered a large coke. What the hell am I doing? It was a question she’d asked herself constantly on the flight to Orlando, and for the entire drive to Sarasota. Even though she must have asked it a thousand times since the call came in about the Tampa murders, she still hadn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.
If her unit chief found out about this side-trip to Sarasota he’d crucify her, or worse, fire her. What’s more, he’d be well within his rights to do so. Scott Hendry thought she was in Tampa helping the police department with the hunt for The Sandman, and the police department thought that she was running late because of a flight delay. It was a fiction that could unravel with a single phone call.
Yoko was betting everything that nobody would make that call. The Tampa PD would be too busy because two more bodies had just turned up, and Hendry would be too busy because there were as many as a hundred active serial killers operating in the US at any one time, which meant that his life was a never-ending exercise in plate spinning. The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit just didn’t have the resources to help everyone who asked. Someone was always going to end up disappointed. Hendry called it the serial-killer lottery.
A waitress returned with her coke before merging into the background again. Yoko wiped the condensation from her glass then picked it up and took a sip. The piano was on the lowest level, next to the bar. It was a baby grand, black and polished. The pianist was only twenty, just a kid really. Scruffy shoulder-length hair, and even scruffier clothes. His jeans were worn and, although she couldn’t see the front of his T-shirt from this angle, she was betting there was a music legend on there. John Lennon or Jim Morrison, or even Hendrix himself.
‘The Wind Cries Mary’ had been replaced with ‘Life On Mars’, an old David Bowie song. The kid reached the chorus, fingers pounding the keys, and Yoko had a flashback to the first time she’d heard this. She’d saved up the pocket money that she got from working at her parents’ stores and rushed out to buy a copy of ‘Hunky Dory’. Then she’d rushed home and put it on the record player and sat there listening in awe as one incredible song followed another. ‘Life On Mars’ had been the standout track. From first note to last it was a classic.
The final booming chord rang around the room and for a second the kid just sat there with a blissed-out expression on his face. His eyes were closed, his head dipped, and he was lost in a world of his own. A smattering of polite distracted applause rippled through the room. His eyes opened, his head came up, and he turned around on the stool until he was facing in her direction.
Then he winked.
Jefferson Winter shut the piano lid and walked up to her table. For a moment he just stood grinning down at her like he knew something she didn’t. Yoko had seen this expression before, fourteen months earlier in a police interview room. At the time she’d been convinced he was a serial killer. Looking at him standing there, his bright green eyes shining, she wondered if that earlier impression might have been correct.
Physically nothing much had changed since their first meeting. His face was still wrinkle-free and unblemished, his skin just as smooth. There were differences, though. His hair was longer and he appeared older. Years plural rather than singular. Look closer and more differences became apparent, these more subtle. Rub away the grin and you’d find a hardness there that hadn’t existed before. It made her wonder what he’d been through over the last fourteen months.
He smiled down at her. ‘Special Agent Tanaka. To what do I owe this pleasure? Just passing through?’
‘No Jefferson, I’m not. And we both know that. I didn’t realise you played so well.’
He glanced over at the piano, then looked back. Yoko thought he might be blushing, but the glow from the candle and the dim mood lighting made it difficult to tell. For a split second he looked uncomfortable. Then he smiled.
‘Your mother was a music teacher,’ she continued. ‘Did she teach you?’
‘You didn’t come all the way down here to talk about my family.’
Winter placed his wine glass on the table and sat down. He spent a moment rearranging the flatware, positioning it so the fork and knife made perfect right angles to the table edge and the spoon was parallel. Yoko sipped her coke and waited for him to finish.
‘You never called. After what happened in Maryland last year I was sure you would. You did good work there, by the way. The FBI need people like you.’
Winter answered with a shrug.
‘I’m serious. What you did in helping us to catch Valentino, that was unique. I haven’t seen anything like it before or since. I couldn’t have done what you did and I’ve been doing this job for ever.’
‘That sounded almost like a compliment.’
‘It was.’ She took a sip of coke, then put her glass back on the table. ‘Congratulations on graduating at the top of your criminal psychology class, by the way. And a year early. That’s pretty impressive.’
Winter raised an eyebrow. ‘Have you been stalking me, Special Agent Tanaka?’
‘I turn up out of the blue at the restaurant you just so happen to be working at, and you even have to ask. Do you know how many restaurants there are in the US?’ Winter opened his mouth to answer and she put her hand up. ‘It’s okay, Jefferson, I don’t really want to know.’
He smiled at that and took a sip of his wine.
Yoko motioned towards the glass. ‘Last time I looked the legal drinking age was twenty-one.
‘Last time I looked my ID said I was twenty-two.’
‘And how much did that cost?’
‘I think I’ll plead the Fifth on that, Special Agent Tanaka.’ The smile slid away. ‘So why are you here?’
Yoko answered by reaching into her bag and bringing out two crime scene photographs. She laid them on the table, one on top of the other, then slid them across using her fingertip. Winter looked at her like he half expected her to snatch them back, then picked them up.
For a long time he sat studying them. He would look at one for about thirty seconds then slip it to the bottom and look at the other. The photographs had been taken at the second crime scene. The girl in the photograph couldn’t have been much older than six or seven. She looked like she was asleep. Her mother had been in her early thirties, and there was no doubt that she was dead.
The waitress returned and stopped at Winter’s shoulder. She glanced down at the photograph and her face lit up with a smile. ‘Cute kid. They always look so sweet when they’re sleeping.’
‘I guess.’ Winter’s eyes were still fixed on the photograph.
Her smile tailed off and she turned to Yoko. ‘Are you ready to order, ma’am?’
‘Can you give me a minute, please?’
‘Have the seafood linguine,’ Winter suggested without looking up. ‘It’s the best thing they serve here.’
Yoko met the waitress’s eye, and her implied question was answered with a nod. ‘The linguine it is, then.’
‘Anything to start?’
‘I’ll have the linguine as well please, Molly,’ said Winter, eyes still fixed on the photograph.
Molly flashed a quick, shy smile then turned and walked away. She was pretty with a girl-next-door vibe. Around Winter’s age, maybe a year or two older. Even so, he seemed much older. Life was hard for everyone, but it had been particularly tough on him. How the hell did you deal with the fallout from being the son of a serial killer?
‘She likes you, you know.’
Winter glanced up from the photographs and Yoko answered with a nod.
‘Didn’t you notice the way she was looking at you? Silly question. Of course you didn’t. You were way too distracted.’
He didn’t say anything for a second. Instead, he watched Molly walk across the room and disappear into the kitchen. ‘You think?’
‘Without a doubt. She’s got a major crush on you, Jefferson.’
Winter shook his head. ‘No, she doesn’t.’
‘Take it from me, she does.’
Another shake of the head, then he pushed the photographs back across the table. He used his fingertip, the gesture mirroring the way that Yoko had pushed them over to him. ‘Good luck with your case, Special Agent Tanaka.’
For a while Yoko just sat there while she considered the best way to move forward. She hadn’t come all this way, and taken so many risks, to leave empty handed. When she thought back to the Valentino case what she remembered most was standing in a bedroom slow dancing to music that only the two of them could hear. At the time she’d been pretending to be a corpse and he’d been pretending to be Valentino. It had been both fascinating and more than a little creepy. And that was the reason she was here. She hadn’t been blowing smoke up his ass when she said he had a gift.
It was Winter who finally broke the silence. ‘I’m not interested in this sort of thing anymore. Looks like you’ve had wasted trip.’
Yoko shook her head slowly. ‘I don’t think so.’