Tess Woodson pushed the red-gold strands of hair out of her face as she bent at the knees and hefted the heavy tray to her shoulder. She balanced it precariously as she eased out of the kitchen and made her way to the far table filled with rowdy college boys.
One of the other waitresses had thoughtfully set up a stand so all Tess had to do was lower the tray and distribute the entrees to the proper diner.
"Here you are, fellas," she said with a smile as she lifted the plates and slid them on the table. She snagged the two empty pitchers from the center of the table and shook them with a raised brow. "Refills?"
"Please," the quiet blond in the back requested with a gentle smile.
"No problem," Tess said as she tucked the tray under her arm and watched for a moment as the boys dug into their food. "Anything else I can get you?"
"Yes, Tess" the most boisterous one said as he nodded at her nametag, a devilish glint in his eye. He was by far the best looking with chiseled features, a strong jaw and perfectly tousled dark hair. He was also the ringleader – the one the others looked to for a good laugh. "How about your number?"
She'd dealt with her fair share of come-ons and pickup lines in the past and from far more pushy and aggressive guys than this lot. She tapped her chin with her index finger as she pretended to think then leaned over, closer to the handsome boy, and smiled. "How about – not."
"Oh, Adam! Shot down!" his friends jeered. Adam had the decency to blush as Tess turned away from them and escaped to the kitchen. She deposited her empty tray on the counter and breezed through another door to the bar. She shoved one of the pitchers under the tap and sighed as it slowly filled. Just two more tables to close and she was free for the entire weekend. Free to catch up on her sleep and the course work that was already piling up despite it being only a week into the new semester.
"You're so lucky, Tess," Melody Rogers said, leaning against the coolers as Tess switched the full pitcher for the empty one. "You get the cute guys at your tables and I'm left with the bitchy married couple who goes out one night a week for dinner and bicker the entire time."
"Well I'm tempted to trade you," Tess said as she eyed the clock. "The college boys are driving me crazy."
"Yeah but you'll probably get a good tip at least," Melody frowned. She followed Tess through the kitchen and paused in the doorway as Tess delivered the two pitchers to the college guys.
Tess endured their teasing and protests over her refusal to give their buddy her number and turned her back on them to check on her other customer. This man, who was a regular and always dined alone, was the complete opposite of the other table. He was quiet and polite, tipped fairly well, and was actually quite handsome in a mysterious sort of way. He had dark hair and eyes and a soft, gentle smile. He always requested to be seated in Tess's section but he never flirted or even indicated that he was attracted to her in any way. She always figured that he'd just appreciated the fact that she didn't fawn all over him as some of the other girls would have – whether to get a big tip or a date, she wasn't sure.
"How are things here?" she asked, turning on a genuine smile. "Can I get you anything else?"
"No, thank you. Just the check, please," he said in his soft voice.
Tess reached into her apron and produced his check. She pointed over her shoulder at the college boys. "Sorry if they disturbed you tonight – I know you prefer to dine in a more…relaxing atmosphere."
He flashed a bright smile, teeth even and extremely white. "They didn't bother me – they're just having a little fun."
For the first time in the three or four months that this man had been coming into the pub, Tess noticed that he wasn't as old as she'd assumed. As a matter of fact, he was probably closer to the college boys in age. He'd just always carried himself as if her were older – more mature and worldly. It puzzled her that she hadn't noticed before.
"I'll take that up whenever you're ready," she said as she removed the last of his dirty dishes.
She stopped near the college boys to grab the tray stand then hurried to the kitchen, depositing the dirty dishes near the dishwasher station. She decided to take a quick breather and give the quiet guy a second to review his bill before she returned to collect it and hopefully, deliver a check to the college boys. She just wanted to get home to relax in the tub with a good book and a glass of wine.
When she'd judged that she'd given the quiet guy enough time, she reentered the dining room but found his table empty but for the check and folded fifty dollar bill. Frowning, she lifted both and eyed his tab – he'd only accrued a sixteen dollar and forty-five cent charge and he was leaving her that large of a tip? It had to be a mistake. Maybe he'd thought he'd left a twenty. She waited for a few, just to see if he'd perhaps gone to the restroom but when the college boys yelled for their check, she shoved the money and the ticket in her pocket. She'd stash the tip in case he came back in at a later date and confessed his mistake.
Grady Werner followed his senior partner, Ted Martin up the stone steps of a rambling apartment complex, fighting a yawn. The weak morning rays weren't strong enough yet to wake his blood and get it pumping through his veins. And neither was the coffee his partner had handed him when he'd picked Grady up in the department issue SUV.
"What do we got?" Ted asked a uniformed officer standing guard at the door.
"Third floor. Apart 3-B," the officer said as he shifted to allow Grady and Ted to pass.
Grady took notice of the cracked plastic tile on the walls and the faded linoleum under their feet. A wide desk took up one wall of the reception area but the wood was chipped and faded. He imagined at one time the place was pretty nice – fancy even – but as industry had moved into the area, property values had plummeted. Now the units rented out cheap and were a favorite to the working girls and drug addicts.
"Damn it," Ted cursed as he smacked the 'Out of Order' sign on the elevator. "Looks like we're hoofing it up three flights of stairs."
They entered the stairwell and Grady instantly switched his breathing from his nose to his mouth to avoid the pungent smell of urine and rat feces.
Grady laughed, the sound echoing off the walls. "Great! Now you can tell your wife you got your exercise for the week."
"Shut up, kid," Ted called over his shoulder, his breath wheezy already from the exertion. "Looks like you got a big mouth to match that big brain."
Grady rolled his eyes behind Ted's back as they climbed the stairs. He was used to the teasing and the jeers from the guys in his precinct and he took it like a man. He wasn't ashamed in the least to be the young, greenhorn among a sea of seasoned veterans. He'd worked his ass off to climb the ranks and was proud to be the youngest detective in the 16th Precinct's history.
When they reached the third floor, a busy hum greeted them. Nervous neighbors peered out their doors while officers kept the more curious ones at bay. Crime technicians buzzed about, collecting minute pieces of evidence in little plastic bags while uniformed officers spoke softly to neighbors, questioning them and recording their answers in department issue notepads.
Ted pushed through all the activity and ducked under a strip of yellow crime scene tape stretched across the open doorway to apartment 3-B.
The apartment was tiny and messy – dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the coffee table, clothes stuffed in corners, dust on the furniture. The living room and the kitchen seemed to be one combined room with a closet-sized bathroom and minutely larger bedroom off to the side. More crime scene techs were scouring the living room and kitchen for traces of evidence: Hairs, fibers, blood.
But Grady was anxious to get to the scene – to inspect the body. He'd been a homicide detective for a little over a year and had successfully closed all eight of the murder investigations he'd been assigned and was eager to notch another on his belt.
"This job never gets easier," Ted grumbled as he forced his way through the group of people congregating in the bedroom. They parted to reveal a young blonde woman bound and gagged on the bed wearing a skimpy pink nightdress stained with blood splotches and ripped by some sort of sharp object. Her hair was a tangled mess, covering half of her face and her wrists and ankles were bound with duct tape. Another strip of duct tape covered her mouth and Grady closed his eyes, his heart going out to the poor girl and the hell she must have endured before her life was taken.
"Who is she?" Grady asked.
"Cheri Arndt," a uniformed responded. "Age nineteen. She's a dancer at the Pink Kitty Club."
"A stripper," Grady surmised as he snapped a pair of latex gloves on his hands.
"A dancer," Ted corrected. "They don't bare all at the Pink Kitty."
Grady raised a brow at his partner. "Oh, and you know this how?"
"I'm a detective – it's my job to know," Ted responded, flushed. "Now, shut up and put that big brain of yours to work."
"Do we have a time of death?" Grady asked, digging in, his mind already working.
"The ME put TOD somewhere between midnight and four this morning," the uniformed said. "The decedent's sister showed up around six-fifteen after an all night brawl with her boyfriend and found Miss Arndt. She screamed loud enough to wake the entire floor until a neighbor busted in, thinking someone was being murdered." The uniformed lifted a shoulder sheepishly. "That's what the neighbor said."
"Where are the sister and the neighbor?" Ted asked as he lifted the hair off of Cheri's head. While the rest of her body had been mutilated, her face was as flawless as ever.
"Across the hall in 3-C."
Ted nodded as he stood and surveyed the entire scene. Blood had spilled from her body and saturated the frayed floral bedspread but other than that, the bed didn't appear as if it had been disturbed.
"What are you thinking, kid?" Ted asked.
Grady's eyes grazed the once beautiful body and furrowed his brow. "I think she knew the guy – maybe a date or something. We'll need to talk to the sister and see if the place was unlocked or what when she came in and find out from the neighbors whether Miss Arndt was seeing anybody."
"You think this is the work of an angry boyfriend? A crime of passion?" Ted asked.
"Nah," Grady said, shaking his head. "There'd be more of a mess – like overturned furniture and other signs of a struggle. Plus, the neighbor's probably would have heard screaming." Grady removed his gloves and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I think she knew him or trusted him."
"Lot of good that did her," Ted snorted.
"Detectives," the uniformed said, pointing over his shoulder at the doorway. "You should see the bathroom."
Grady and Ted exchanged a look before brushing past the photographer snapping pictures to enter the cramped bathroom. There, on the mirror, scrawled in deep red lipstick was the word 'Tease.'
"What the hell?" Ted mumbled under his breath.
Grady didn't respond as he was trying to process the limited information he had. It definitely didn't look random – the poor girl was targeted.
"Let's talk to the sister and the neighbor," Grady said, turning his back on the message. "Let's find this bastard before he hurts anyone else."