A Better Place

Episode 8 of Relativity

by Michelle and James Lehmann

 

Chapter 1

 

Red, blue. Red, blue. Red, blue.

Babs Stone glanced up at the wall, the color of the bricks changing intermittently. There were emergency lights nearby and that usually meant the police. On most days, that would be enough to send her on her way, but with the whispers on the streets, and the reports on the news, Babs was curious to know just what tonight’s drama entailed.

Approaching the ice cream shop at the corner, she peeked around the building. There were three squad cars and an ambulance. A large group was gathered around, watching the scene behind bright yellow hazard tape. Most of the spectators were occupants of the nearby houses. However, a few were women she was familiar with—women who walked the streets of Gale, looking to turn a trick. She sauntered over to the sidelines.

“Hey, girls,” she said, approaching three of the women who were whispering amongst themselves. “What’s going on?”

Cami Rainbow was one of the younger hookers, but she was well-known, well-liked, and had a lot of connections. She pulled Babs closer and motioned for her to keep her voice down. “Cops found another girl tonight. They said she was chopped up into little pieces. Thing is, I saw her down on Seventh earlier tonight, trying to pick up a john.”

Babs looked back at the building. It held four residential apartments, one of which was the home of the victim. She shook her head. She never took new customers to her place. ever. Even the regulars had to be with her for over a year, and only about half of them ended up being trustworthy enough.

“Did anyone see the guy she left with?” she asked, returning her attention to the women.

“No,” a hooker named Lola answered. “Most of the girls had already gotten a trick. There were only one or two others there.”

The talk shifted to the state of the body. From what Babs could tell, the hookers didn’t know anything for sure, but were speculating based on tidbits they’d overheard from the cops. Babs wasn’t interested in that. She never liked gossip. She was one that wanted the cold hard facts. Strolling away from the group, her eyes scanned the crowd. No one she knew, and nobody that looked like a prospective customer either.

Still a bit nervous being so close to the authorities, Babs was about the leave when she noticed a tall police officer standing off to the side. He was guarding the far corner of the roped-off area by himself. Popping a mint into her mouth, she made her way over.

“Hey, Tigger,” she cooed as she moved next to the man.

The officer shifted and looked over his shoulder. “Shh. Don’t call me that here. I’m Tommy, okay?”

Tigger was one of her trusted regulars. “I didn’t know you were a police officer,” she said with a smile. Though, the fact did explain why the man always had a pair of handcuffs with him for their bedroom play.

“Well, don’t go saying anything out loud. If one of my co-workers finds out, they’ll tell my wife for sure.”

“No worries,” Babs said, pretending to lock her lips with a key. Her expression darkened and she motioned to the building. “What’s going on in there?”

“They found another woman’s body. Some nosey kid happened to see the gal’s front door open and peeked in. Otherwise, who knows how long it would have taken to find her.” He lowered his voice. “The place was covered in blood.”

The prostitute shuddered. “That makes three now, right?”

Tommy shook his head. “Seven.”

“Seven? But I only heard about two others on the news.”

“They don’t always tell the press everything. They have to keep details down and away from the public, so it’s easier to catch the criminal.”

That made sense to Babs. She was home during the day and watched a lot of re-runs. Those crime shows were always talking about how the police would keep certain facts to themselves, or leak wrong information to test if suspects knew the correct details.

“Seven?” she repeated. “This only started a few weeks ago, right?”

The officer nodded. “Yeah. At first it was one here, one there. But now he’s averaging two or three a week.”

A group of detectives appeared from the doorway of the building. Tommy looked back over his shoulder again. “You gotta get out of here. My boss is coming.”

Babs didn’t even wait for the man to finish his sentence. She had started to jog down the sidewalk and ducked into a nearby gangway. Leaning against the wall, she straightened her shirt and ran her fingers through her hair. The thought of walking the streets wasn’t appealing, but her car still needed a thousand dollars worth of repairs and rent was due next week. Hopefully the killer had had his fill for the night.

Taking a deep breath, the prostitute headed to the strip down on Maxwell.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Single white female, twenty-six years old. Brown hair, blue eyes, five foot six, slightly overweight.” Michael flicked on his turn signal, taking a right onto Coral Avenue. “Victim was found bound to a chair, dead in her apartment.”

Sara sat in the passenger seat, her eyebrows furrowed. “The victims are all so different. Varying ages, races, appearances.”

“The only thing in common is that they were all prostitutes. That’s not unusual, though. Many serial killers target those types of women because they aren’t always missed right away.”

His sister tapped her fingers on the dashboard. “And the killings have been going on for nearly four weeks? Why didn’t we hear about them earlier?”

“The police were dealing with the bombings and riots. Sadly, a couple of hookers being cut up didn’t mean much. But this guy upped the ante. Three women in the last nine days. Once we stopped Thorn and they declared Brooks the winner, things calmed down enough that the police went public with it.”

“Okay, so we need to think about this.” Sara rubbed her chin. “You said there was no sexual assault in any of the cases. Isn’t that unusual?”

“To a degree. But not all killers get off on the sexual aspect. Some simply take pleasure in the pain and death. Though, I suspect that this guy will eventually turn to rape if he’s allowed to kill much longer. What I find odd is that the victims only had wounds to the arms. The killer slashed their wrists to kill them.”

Sara shuddered and closed her eyes. “Okay, we probably should stop talking about this right before dinner. What time are we supposed to meet Melody and Ravenswood?”

“We have reservations at Cardisio’s for 7:30.”

Hoping to ease the mood a bit, Michael switched on the radio, the sounds of Mozart filling the car. It had only been a few days since Sara had come to the Tower for her pseudo-initiation into Team Torrent. Despite their fears, she hadn’t taken much time to acclimate. When the news of the serial murders hit the airwaves, she had come to them, making it clear she wanted to help in the investigation. It felt good to finally be able to talk to his sister about crimefighting, not to mention he liked the idea of helping her fine-tune her detective skills.

The siblings made it to the restaurant three minutes shy of the half-hour mark. Melody and Ravenswood were already seated at a table; they had taken the liberty of ordering appetizers.

“Gosh, you must be nervous,” Sara said, lowering herself into her seat. She grabbed a breaded mushroom and dunked into the Ranch dressing. “What is it? Three weeks away?”

“Nineteen days,” Ravenswood corrected. “A year ago when I proposed, it seemed like such a long time off. Now, we’re here.”

“You guys are going to do fine,” Michael reassured. “Remember, things are gonna go wrong no matter how much you plan. So, just roll with it.”

“That’s what my mom keeps saying,” Melody sighed. “I wish I could be as calm as her.”

Sara smiled and placed her hand on the woman’s. “I’m sure everything’s going to be beautiful.”

“You’re coming, right?” Melody asked.

“Yes. Of course. I won’t have a date, but...”

The waiter appeared and took the group’s order. Once he had left, Ravenswood leaned forward, his voice hushing to a whisper. “Listen, I know these murders are going on. We’ve been busy, but if you need any help—”

Michael glanced around, assuring no one was within earshot. “Don’t stress about that. Sometimes life has to come first. I’ve got it covered. Plus, Sara’s here to help now. You guys shouldn’t worry about it, okay?”

Melody didn’t look placated. “But we have to worry. That’s why we do this.”

“If we really need your help, we’ll ask.” Michael adjusted the napkin on his lap. “I just want you to focus on your big day, okay?”

A blonde waitress approached the table, a large tray of plates balanced on her right hand. She pulled off a platter of pasta and motioned it to Sara. “You ordered the spaghetti, right, dear?”

Michael glanced up at the woman, his face flushing hot. The waitress caught his gaze and her eyes narrowed.

Sara shook her head. “No, I didn’t. I had the braised chicken.”

“Really? I think you should try the spaghetti, it’s spectacular.” The woman thrust the plate forward, dumping the contents onto the redhead’s lap.

“No!” Sara cried, jumping up.

“Sheila!” Michael yelled, rising to his feet.

“Oh, you remember my name, eh?” The waitress turned back to the redhead. “Bet he doesn’t call you back again, either.”

Grabbing a handful of noodles from her lap, Sara tossed them onto the table. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m his sister!

The waitress flushed. She shot Michael another glare, turned, then disappeared into the kitchen.

Ravenswood leaned over towards him. “Girlfriend?”

“Um, one night, y’know?”

“Ah.”

Melody grabbed her napkin, trying to help wipe the thick red sauce off Sara’s yellow skirt.

The maitre d’ rushed over, his face crimson. “Mr. Bruce, I am so sorry! Should you like I fire that woman?”

Raising his hand, Michael shook his head. “I’m sure it was an accident. I hope you understand, we won’t be able to stay for our dinner. Could you cancel the order?”

“Of course. Next time, your meal is on the house.”

Sara shot him a confused look and Michael averted his eyes. He didn’t need to deal with two angry women.

The detective leaned over the table, grabbing the remaining breadsticks from the basket.

“Ray,” Melody chided.

“What?” he asked, one of the sticks hanging out of his mouth.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara was silent as they drove away from the restaurant. Michael hadn’t explained the situation to her, but he was sure she had figured it out on her own.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed, wondering if he should tell her the whole story anyway.

His sister stopped him with a raised hand. “It’s okay. I suppose these things happen when you’re a rich playboy.”

The label shocked Michael. “Playboy? I’m no Tony Toronto.”

“I didn’t say you were. But, c’mon, Michael. You’re rich, you’re good looking. I’m sure you have a long string of women.”

“No, I don’t.” The fact of the matter was that while he was no choirboy, he was far from the philanderer his former friend had been. Besides, “Sheila was the first woman I’d been with in three or four months. You know, there’s not a lot of time for sex when you’re fighting crime every night.”

The mere mention of the word made his sister blush. She covered her eyes in embarrassment. “Listen, I don’t know why you’re being so defensive. I’m the one that got spaghetti dumped all over me. I just want to get home, change into my pajamas, and make a frozen pizza, okay?”

A small beep sounded and Michael fumbled in his pocket, pulling out his cellphone. “Um, I think you may want to slip into your uniform instead. There’s been another body found.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The Bluelight Hotel had the lowest rates they could manage to try to attract tourists. Unfortunately, that meant they also appealed to customers looking to indulge in a one-night stand or extra-marital tryst. It wasn’t unusual for a man to check-in wearing sunglasses at night, or a hat and trench coat in warm weather.

There was yellow police tape around the front of the building and a couple dozen spectators trying to get a look. Torrent recognized one of the cops running crowd control and asked to be waved in. As they made their way inside, Michael could see two officers standing outside a room that had its door open. When he approached, one of the policemen called out, “Hey, Damian.”

Torrent spoke to the other officer. “Another prostitute? Was she killed like the others?”

The cop didn’t answer. He just looked towards the man who was approaching. Torrent recognized him as Damian Hernandez, captain of the first ward.

“This is a crime scene,” the captain said, his tone matter-of-fact.

Torrent knew he had to tread lightly. Hernandez had worked with superheroes in the past, but he made it clear he’d prefer not to. “I was just hoping to get some information,” the crimefighter said. “Maybe look around a little. I won’t touch anything.”

“Are you investigating this?” asked Hernandez, his eyebrow arching.

“Yes, I’ve been looking into the killings. I want to help, if I can.”

“Well, this is a police matter. We have it covered. We’ll let you know if we need anything.”

Dark Flame moved to man’s side. “Was the hooker wearing pink nail polish?”

Hernandez’s eyes narrowed to slits. “How did you know that?”

“I noticed some pink polish chips on the front counter. She must have been lingering around there. She was probably the one who ordered the room.”

“She was,” one of the nearby detectives concurred.

Hernandez flashed him a harsh glare and then returned his attention to the crimefighters. “We have this under control. If we need any help from government-sanctioned vigilantes, I’ll let you know.”

With a sharp turn, Torrent made his way back to the lobby.

“My, isn’t he pleasant,” Dark Flame whispered, catching up with him.

“He’s arrogant. He’s been jockeying for police superintendent for the last five years.” Moving out into the open air, he headed to the side of the building.

“Now what?” the redhead asked.

“We talk to the people who may have seen this guy. Try to get a description.”

“But they won’t let us question the hotel staff.”

“No, I’m talking about prostitutes.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“We’re looking to expand our presence in south Europe. Right now we have twelve properties in...”

Michael glanced down at the portfolio, various reports, spreadsheets, and graphs in front of him, but he didn’t see a thing. His mind was far from the room. He and Dark Flame had spent several hours walking the streets, talking to prostitutes and neighborhood locals. Usually people weren’t too quick to talk to capes, but with tensions already high from the mayoral race and bombings, and now a psychotic killer on the loose, the costumed pair found more than a handful of citizens willing to share what they knew.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t much. The killer had been clever. Like many serial killers, he was unassuming, the type of guy you would never expect to be a murderer. The type of guy so ordinary, you hardly noticed him at all. Most people who thought they might have seen him couldn’t really give a description, with the exception that he had light hair and didn’t wear glasses. Also, no one could seem to agree on the car he drove.

Scribbling mindlessly on the legal pad as he pondered, the depth of his thoughts was penetrated by a voice calling his name. “Mister Bruce!”

Michael glanced up, looking at the man standing at the head of the table. The other members of the Board stared at him. “I’m sorry?” he stammered.

“I was asking you a question,” Jeffrey Dontell snipped. The man’s eyes narrowed. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? I assume too distracted with other matters. Perhaps too busy worrying how your next tennis match will go.”

There were sniggers around the table and Michael felt himself bristle. This meeting was important. His father had reminded him of that, and had warned him to stay on task. But crimefighting always seemed to take priority in his brain, whether he wanted it to or not.

Fortunately, it was his father who came to the rescue.

“Jeff, c’mon now. Michael has been doing an excellent job working to expand the European market. He managed to close the deal with Continental, so give him a break. He’s got some personal matters on his mind.”

Yule himself had closed Continental in a two-hour phone deal, but he never let the Board know it. His father was far from grabbing the glory for himself. Everything was to protect the Torrent Project.

Michael rose. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey. You’re right. I’m quite distracted. I was thinking about that hot brunette I was banging last night and I can’t seem to focus on anything else. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get a date for my friend’s wedding.”

The snickers around the table were replaced by gasps. Michael headed into the hallway. After a few moments, Yule followed him out, pushing him so they were out of earshot of the directors.

“You know, you make it difficult for me to keep your cover that way. It was a good comeback, though.”

“Sorry,” the CEO apologized, rubbing his temples.

“I told them you were stressing over some financial matters.”

“Did they buy it?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. It’s something most of the people in that room can relate to—money problems.”

Stepping further away, Michael lowered his breath. “I think I’m just getting burnt out. We’ve had non-stop crap for the last few months between the regular drama, the bombings, and this new creep. I’m getting all obsessive because I want it to be over so we can catch a break.”

Yule nodded. “I know that feeling all too well. You look strung-out. Go back to the penthouse and get some sleep. I’ll finish the meeting, then we’ll discuss what you and your sister need to do tonight. I have some ideas.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Aaron Brooks stood back, watching as a police officer named Sanders carefully took photo after photo of the dead body in the middle of the hotel room. He normally didn’t go out on calls, but this case was high-profile and he wanted to make sure all the bases were covered.

Another uniformed officer, this one named McDermott, entered the room and walked over to him. “There’s a couple of people here who want to see the crime scene. They’re not reporters.”

“Who are they?”

“Black Torrent and Dark Flame.”

Brooks raised his eyebrows at that, then followed McDermott back into the hallway.

Standing behind the yellow police tape were the two crimefighters. “You can come in,” he said. “But you have to promise not to touch anything. They haven’t moved the body yet, but they’re going to soon.”

Black Torrent nodded and went in.

Dark Flame hesitated, then took a deep breath. Aaron was pretty sure she had never seen a murder scene up close before. He worried she might not be able to handle it. Aaron grabbed her arm just before she entered the room. “Listen...”

“Yes?”

He realized there was nothing he could say without revealing that he knew her secret. He let go of her arm. “Nothing. Sorry.”

Sara looked at him for a moment longer, her gaze boring into him like a drill. A moment later, she turned and stepped into the room.

In the space between the bed and the bathroom, there was a tiny desk with a phone. On the chair sat a prostitute, still fully clothed, both of her wrists slashed. She was tied to the chair and there was tape on her mouth. Her head was slumped back and her eyes were closed, almost as if she had fallen asleep. The blood had run from her wrists, staining her tight jeans, and then onto the floor. Two large ovals of brownish-red puddled on the carpeting.

Brooks noticed that Torrent had taken in the hooker’s appearance in an instant and had moved on to the rest of the room. Dark Flame, however, stopped and stared. Aaron decided to give them the run-down of what they’d learned so far. “She was discovered an hour ago by hotel staff.”

“The maid?” asked Torrent, as he studied something near the window.

“Yes. From what we can gather, there was no sexual assault. The killer simply tied her to the chair and slashed her wrists.” He pointed to the bed, which had not been used. “There’s a slight indentation in the blankets here. We believe the killer sat and watched her die.”

Torrent looked at the cuts on the woman’s wrists. “It doesn’t look like he hit an artery.”

“We’re pretty sure he didn’t.”

Torrent stood up and grimaced. “It would have taken a while for her to die.”

Aaron nodded. From the size of the wounds, how deep they were, and their location, they had estimated, “Fifteen to twenty minutes.”

Dark Flame closed her eyes a moment, then walked over to a detective who was dusting for fingerprints. She hovered over him but kept glancing back at the victim.

Torrent narrowed his eyes, looking intently at the victim’s neck. He pulled a flashlight from his belt and turned it on.

“What is it?” asked Aaron.

The crimefighter pointed to the collar of the woman’s blouse. By leaning in close, Aaron could just barely make out what Torrent was pointing to—a pattern of small splash marks radiating out from the vicinity of the woman’s face.

“It looks like she was sprayed with something,” said Aaron. “Sprayed in her face... So it was meant to either incapacitate or blind her. Sanders, do you think you could get a photograph of this spray pattern?”

The officer nodded. “I think I can. If I take a high dynamic range photo... I’ll take several under different lighting conditions.”

Aaron looked at the woman’s top again. “There probably isn’t enough there to get a sample. We’ll try, though.”

“Any sign of the murder weapon?” asked Torrent.

“No. And we checked her fingernails—she didn’t scratch him, so nothing there.”

Torrent remained silent for a moment. “I think that’s everything,” he said finally. “Let me know if you find anything else.”

“All right,” he said. “You might want to check the surveillance video. I’ve got an officer downstairs getting a copy. I’ll radio him and tell him to let you see it.”

Torrent nodded. “I appreciate it. Dark Flame...”

Sara turned to him, her face blank. She mutely followed him out.

 

“Are you okay?” asked Torrent.

Dark Flame didn’t appear to hear him for a moment, but then she nodded and said, “Yeah. Yeah, no problem.”

Michael was sure she was lying, but he didn’t want to press the issue. He turned and headed back down the stairs.

They reached the security office on the first floor. A police officer was there, along with a hotel guard. “Brooks said you were coming,” said the cop. “We’ve already got it queued up.”

A screen lit up showing a distorted view of the lobby. A man and a woman entered, the skewed camera angle making them appear to be on an odd slant. The woman was the dead body back in the room. It was creepy seeing her alive, walking around, and Torrent felt Dark Flame shudder beside him. The man was tall, wearing a checkered flannel shirt, black jeans, and a baseball cap. The camera was located in the ceiling looking down, so his face was completely hidden.

“This is the only video you’ve got?” asked Torrent.

“Yep,” said the guard.

“Well, at least we know he’s tall,” said Dark Flame.

On the screen, the man turned and walked away, the woman following him.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The administrator of the Gale Home for Children stared out the picture window behind the desk in her office. She watched as the kids played on the lawn. A car drove by, slowed, then continued on. Her heart raced, even though she knew it was probably nothing.

“Sara, I looked in Joey Martin’s file. The request form isn’t there.”

The redhead turned sharply. “I know I put it there. Look again.”

“I did look. Maybe you just thought you did.”

“I know what I did,” the redhead snapped. “It was in there yesterday and it had original signatures. Find it.”

Molly swallowed and nodded, heading out.

Watching the woman leave, Sara sat down at her desk and buried her face in her hands.

The door opened again. It wasn’t the social worker, but her assistant. Madge seated herself in the guest chair. “All right, what’s going on?”

Rubbing her eyes, Sara shook her head. “What do you mean?”

“You snapped at me this morning, you screamed at poor Carmella in the kitchen at lunch, and now Molly’s near tears.”

“She lost the request form.”

Madge stood up, sorting through the myriad of papers on the desk. “You mean this one?”

Sara flushed red. “Um, yes, that one.”

Re-seating herself, the secretary leaned forward. “What’s going on?”

Even though she had managed to fight back the tears all morning, a few managed to slip down her cheek. “I saw this prostitute last night. The latest victim of the serial killer. Tied to a chair, all cut up. She couldn’t be more than sixteen. I mean, girls like that come through the crisis center here all the time. And there she was, her blood all spilled out on the floor, dead.” Her voice trailed off, her mind returning to the crime scene. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Madge slipped her hands into her friend’s. “It’s okay.”

“I’d never seen a dead body, much less a kid.”

“Sara, you knew you would eventually have to face this kind of thing.”

“I know, but it’s different. You can play a scenario in your head a hundred times, but when you’re there and it’s real, it’s different.”

Madge’s usual concern for her friend deepened. “Do you want to give up?”

“No! I mean, I can’t. I mean... I don’t know.” She rose, walking to the window. “I don’t want to give up. I need to do this. Michael and Dad have put so much faith in me. I don’t want to disappoint them.” Her gaze returned to her friend. “I don’t want to let that girl down. I need to get that killer.”

Madge rose, moving to her friend. “Sara, you’re the Dark Flame. You’ve done amazing things. I know you can do this. I believe in you.”

It was a pep-talk, the kind Sara often gave the staff at the Home, and the kind she’d given Madge numerous time during her pregnancy. She squeezed her friend’s hand. “They say cops go through this, on their first few calls. The trauma. So, I guess it’s normal.” She looked down. “I think I’d better go and apologize to Carmella and Molly.”

Placing her hand on her friend’s shoulder, Madge smiled. “Let’s go together.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The Dark Flame looked down from the rooftop. From her vantage point, she could keep an eye on both sides of the street for half a mile. This was one of the parts of town where hookers tended to gather. With three adult book stores and a strip club nearby, most men entering this area had only one thing on their mind.

It had been three nights since the last murder. Torrent and Dark Flame had been out patrolling the seedier parts of town every evening, looking for the suspect. The hookers, who normally would stand alone or in pairs, now clustered in groups of four or five for safety.

As the night wore on and the number of women dwindled, Dark Flame began to wonder if she had chosen the wrong location. There were other parts of town where prostitutes gathered. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to patrol all of them at once.

A tan Honda Civic pulled over, the man inside talking to one of the girls. There was something unusual about the car, but she couldn’t put her finger on what. Scaling down, she stood in the narrow gangway between the two buildings and pulled out her binoculars. As she looked over the vehicle, she realized what had struck as her so odd—it was a rental.

Who rents a car to pick up hookers? she thought.

The car was dark, so it was hard to make out the man inside. As he leaned over to open the passenger-side door, Dark Flame caught a glimpse of—

“Flannel!” she said, breaking into a run.

 

Babs stood with the girls, talking. She liked the sisterhood the prostitutes displayed, but the sad fact was that many of them had much harder situations than her. The vast majority of them had abusive pimps, at least half of them were on drugs, and more than a handful had diseases that their clients didn’t want to know about. As much as Babs hated her life sometimes, she realized that it was better than most of the girls walking the streets. For that reason, she typically preferred hanging out on her own. But with the killer still on the loose, tonight she wanted to be with as many women as possible.

It was a busy evening, which was both good and bad. A killer might be able to slip in, just one of the crowd. Babs decided to hang back and let some of the other girls get first picks.

A tan sedan pulled up. It was hard to see inside, but the guy looked tall, skinny, and dorky. He pointed at Babs and did a little “c’mere” with his finger. Adjusting her boobs in an obvious manner, she sauntered over.

“Hey, sweetie. Looking for some fun?” she cooed, making sure to bat her eyelashes. She didn’t want it to be obvious she was scoping him out. He wore a tee-shirt, jeans, and a flannel shirt. The car smelled freshly cleaned and he had a cup of convenience store coffee in the holder. Not really the makings of a serial killer, she thought.

“You’re so pretty,” he said, with a sadness in his voice. “Are you available now or is it a bad time?”

Oh, he’s a noob, she thought and it made her feel better. She quite liked initiating men into the world of prostitution. They were usually less demanding and far more thankful for any favors.

She nodded. “Would you like to go somewhere?” Babs rattled off her pricing, her will-dos and won’t-dos, and the man agreed after considering it for a few moments. She opened the door and scooted into the passenger’s seat, sliding her hand onto his thigh. “Your choices of places, but I insist on a hotel.”

The man smiled nervously. “I think I have an idea.”

 

“No,” Dark Flame muttered as the hooker slipped into the car. They had idled there for a few minutes, and she had hoped she could clear the distance in that time. However, just as she made it to the area, the car sped away. “Damn,” she cursed. She darted back to the nearby alley, heading for her motorcycle.

Sliding into the enclosed compartment, she clicked-on her safety belt and started the engine. She hadn’t been driving the new bike long, but it was twice as powerful as her old one, and much faster. Shifting into gear, she sped in the direction the car had headed.

There had been too much of a delay. The Civic was gone. Feeling panic grip her, Dark Flame took a deep breath. “You just have to find them, that’s all.” Making a mental note of all of the hotels in the area, she started down one of the side streets.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The man pulled into the small dirt driveway. It was an apartment building, one of a dozen on the street, and it was dark inside. It was in the middle of a residential area, but given the hour, things were quiet and no one was around.

“I thought we were going to a hotel,” Babs said, irritated. “I won’t do clients’ homes.”

“This isn’t my home,” the man said with a weak smile. “I renovate buildings. I’m working on this one. The apartment on the second floor is almost finished. I thought we’d go there because it’s quiet and clean. No one around to see anything.” He looked at her and chuckled. “I’m really nervous.”

It sounded dubious to Babs. Despite what she had said, she did accompany men back to their homes sometimes, but with the killer at large, she wasn’t sure if it was a good idea now. She actually considered suggesting they just have a go at it in the car, but it was a small vehicle, and she didn’t think he’d agree.

If I say no, that’s gonna mean driving around, looking for a new spot. That is if he doesn’t drop me off and pick up another girl.

Looking around, Babs decided the neighborhood wasn’t that bad, and there was a good deal of light on the street. She smiled and nodded. “Okay, honey, this is fine. Let’s go in.”

The lower floor of the building was dark and dusty, but as they got to the second level, things looked nicer. The man moved to the door and opened it with a twist of the knob. “Go on in, m’lady.”

Babs laughed and walked in. The apartment was clean, but it didn’t have much furniture: a bed, an armchair, and two milk cartons stacked to make a nightstand. There were only two small lamps which filled the room with thick shadows. Babs’s mouth puckered. She’d been in nicer sleazy motels.

The man wrung his hands and forced a smile. “Do you want something to drink?”

The prostitute shook her head. She never drank on a first trick. There were far too many date-rape drugs available, and she wasn’t giving anyone a freebie. “Un-uh,” she said, moving up to the man. She placed her fingers on his crotch. “I thought we’d get started right away.”

Pulling back, the man flushed red. “I’m Henry, by the way.” He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “Actually, I didn’t bring you here to make love.”

That surprised Babs, but didn’t shock her. While most men were looking for sex, some men wanted other things. One of her tricks had simply wanted to stare at her naked. Another john had brought costumes and wanted to play make-believe. The oddest job she had was a man who wanted to sit and talk with her. His wife was controlling and never let him get a word in edgewise, so he spent the hour recounting the dramas of his life.

“Whatever you want, sweetie. Do you have anything in mind?”

The man looked at her with sad eyes, but Babs realized it was not sorrow, but pity. “Why do you do this? You poor thing. Forced into such a life. You must hate yourself, don’t you?”

Babs’s mouth twisted. “Wha—? Hate myself? Turning tricks isn’t the best life, but it’s all right.”

Walking towards her, he looked into her eyes, his fingers touching her hair. “You’re so pretty. So young. You’re actually the prettiest girl I’ve picked up.”

That startled Babs as she realized Henry had done this before. She started to get nervous. “Listen, if you don’t want sex, you need to tell me what you want. This is my job, okay?”

“Job,” the man said with a shake of his head. In a fluid movement, he grabbed her arm and she was amazed at how strong he was. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small stainless-steel aerosol bottle, pumping it once into her face. Before she had a chance to scream, the mist hit her nose, choking her and causing her eyes to water and blur. She coughed once before the man grabbed her throat and shoved her to the floor.

“I know you don’t like this life. It’s okay,” he reassured. “I’m gonna make it all better.”