Read Vicious Online

Authors: Debra Webb

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General, #Southern Crime, #Police Procedural, #Faces of Evil Series, #Sibling Murderers, #Starting Over, #Reunited Lovers, #Southern Thriller, #Obsessed Serial Killer

Vicious (7 page)

BOOK: Vicious
4.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“It’s lovely.” She turned to the man whose pride for his pupil’s work literally beamed from his face. “Is this the first painting you’ve purchased from Lisa?”

“I rarely purchase a painting from a student.” He shrugged. “Most are just learning to put their feelings on the canvas. The work, though perhaps fairly well done, isn’t generally extraordinary enough to fit in here.”

“But this one did?” Jess indicated Templeton’s painting. “Because she needed money?”

“I don’t make a habit of buying art because the artist needs money,” he chided. “I made an exception with this one because for the first time, Lisa allowed all the emotion she’d kept inside to spill onto the canvas. She was in love with another woman and she wanted the world to know. She wasn’t hiding anymore. That decision elevated her work from the so-so to the remarkable. It’s that ability to convey ones deepest emotions that defines a master artist.”

“Do you know who the other woman in the painting is?” The profile was not clear enough for Jess to be certain. The long flowing dark blond hair could have been Alisha Burgess’s, Templeton’s housemate, but the eyes were closed and there just wasn’t enough facial detail to make that determination. The other woman was obviously Lisa Templeton.

“Lisa had a secret lover,” Ellis explained. “She opened up to me after class one evening. She didn’t want anyone to know. I urged her to stop hiding her true feelings and this was her way of coming out, so to speak.” He turned to Jess. “But the answer to your question is no. I have no idea who the other woman is.”

“Did Lisa have any enemies that you know of? Anyone who gave her trouble at her shop or in your class?” Templeton had moved here almost three years ago from northern Tennessee. Neither she nor Burgess had any family in the area. They were still working on a list of the women’s friends.

Ellis crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his finger against his chin as if giving the questions a great deal of thought. “Lisa struggled mightily with who she was. Like most artists, she had difficulty accepting her lot in life. She did what she had to do to earn a living, but she wanted more. She moved to Birmingham to escape her family. They have very strong religious beliefs that, shall we say, hampered Lisa’s lifestyle. She wanted to be who she was. After moving here, she started to open up, like a tiny bird just hatching. I watched her grow in my class this past spring, spread her wings. This,” he indicated the painting, “was the real Lisa.”

But did that decision cost Lisa her life? “Did she mention any family problems at all? Had anyone come to Birmingham to try and persuade her to come home?” Or repent? The idea made Jess think of Wanda Newsom, her aunt and only living relative besides her sister and her sister’s family. The aunt who’d let Jess and her sister down as children when their parents were killed but who had suddenly found religion and wanted to make it all right.

Jess banished the painful memories.

Ellis shook her head. “Lisa had been estranged from her family for over two years. They never called or visited.”

“Any trouble with work?” Jess prompted.

“There are those, even in a city as progressive as Birmingham, who didn’t agree with Lisa’s business choices. This is still the Bible Belt. There was the occasional protest outside her shop. I read about the incidents in the paper but she never mentioned them to me.”

“Are you aware that several of your students maintain a closed Facebook page where they feature some pretty graphic art?”

Ellis frowned. “I am not. The inspiration, however, could be a result of my classes. I encourage them to share their art and their feelings with those they trust. Life is about exploring one’s world, inside and out. Sometimes it’s difficult to share the discoveries with those who might not understand.”

How nice
. Jess scrounged around in her bag for a business card. One of these days she had to get better organized. She handed the card to Ellis. “I really appreciate your time, Rick. If you think of anything else that might help us find the person responsible for this tragedy, I hope you’ll give me a call. We’d like to give the folks who cared about these women closure.”

He read over the card before tucking it into his jacket pocket. “Of course. Anything I recall, you’ll be the first to know.”

Jess started to turn away but hesitated. “You’re not from Birmingham, are you?”

He chuckled as if he recognized she’d been trying to figure out the answer to that question from the moment he said hello. “I came to Birmingham ten years ago after spending two decades in Europe, primarily in Paris, surviving as an artist.”

“But you hail from Massachusetts originally?”

“Indeed.” He grinned. “There are some things we can never escape.”

Jess knew a little something about that. She’d spent twenty years trying to rid herself of her southern accent only to have it reemerge in full form barely a week after returning to Birmingham.

Some things were just destined to be.

Ellis escorted them to the door and insisted they should come again under more pleasant circumstances, and then he wished them a
bonne journée
. Outside, Jess considered her impressions of the man. “I didn’t get anything from him, you?”

Lori vigilantly scrutinized the street. “Only that he was quite taken with you.”

Jess moved toward the Mustang. “I think he just wanted to see my badge.”

Lori grinned at Jess across the roof of the car. “Face it, you’re a celebrity, Chief.”

Jess rolled her eyes. “Lucky me.”

When they’d settled inside, Lori hesitated before starting the engine. “You’re okay, right?”

Her team—no, her friends—recognized she was not herself. How could she be? Her hormones were focused on gestation. Her emotions were scattered all over the map. She was a mess.

“I’m okay.” Jess faked a smile.

“You know you can talk to me,” Lori ventured, “if you need to.”

Jess nodded. “I absolutely do.”

But I may not be able to protect you

That stone cold reality haunted Jess incessantly.


Birmingham Police Department, 12:50 p.m.

“I have a list of Templeton’s and Burgess’s friends and close acquaintances to interview, Chief.” Harper grabbed the massive steak and cheese sub sandwich he’d ordered and tore off a bite.

Cook tossed back the last of his soft drink and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Stacey Jernigan remembered all sorts of things after puking all over the interview room.”

Jess nibbled at her sweet potato fries. She had to eat, she knew this, but her appetite apparently wasn’t interested. “Anything more than the names of friends and acquaintances?” A couple of scenarios were drifting around in Jess’s head but none had anchored just yet.

“A couple details.” Cook hopped up and strode over to the case board. He tapped the photo of Alisha Burgess. “She and Templeton were lovers. Jernigan admitted the two women had been keeping the relationship secret.”

Evidently not secret enough
. Jess sipped her apple juice and shuddered. It was awful. Why would people drink this stuff much less force it on their kids? “Why keep it a secret? She didn’t have any family here. Birmingham isn’t exactly L.A., but we have our share of non-traditional couples.” The bigger question remained, was the other woman in the painting Burgess? “Did she mention the painting?”

“She did not,” Cook said.

Photo in hand, Lori scooted back her chair and joined Cook at the case board. “Templeton kept the relationship a secret because she didn’t want her boyfriend to find out her roommate was also her one true love.” Lori added the photo of a twenty-something male beneath Templeton’s and announced, “Meet Rod Slater. He owns the building where Templeton managed the sex toy shop, along with half a dozen other small commercial buildings in the city. Since she lived in the apartment above her shop until two weeks ago, he was also her landlord. Slater and Templeton were in a relationship for about a year. Nothing serious. More like friends with benefits.”

Cook pointed to the photo. “Except, this guy wanted to be her only friend. Jernigan says Slater roughed Templeton up a couple of times. He kicked her out of the apartment and threatened to cancel the lease on the shop she managed. The next day Templeton moved into the Homewood house and took Burgess with her.”

Jess pushed her lunch aside. “Any witnesses to these violent episodes?”

“Not specifically the ones with Templeton,” Harper explained, joining the conversation. “I checked his record. Slater’s one of the possessive-aggressive types. He thinks the women he dates belong to him. They have to be faithful even if he’s not. His rap sheet confirms Jernigan’s allegations. Five counts of intimate partner violence over the past three years.”

“Pick him up.” Jess had no tolerance for men or women who abused their intimate partners or anyone else. Strength and power were not excuses to be a bully.

Harper grabbed the remains of his lunch. “On my way now, ma’am.”

“Detective Wells, why don’t you give Sergeant Harper a hand,” Jess suggested. If this guy Slater put up a fight, he would need someone to protect him from his bad decision. Harper was typically a quiet man but, like Jess, he had no patience with jerks.

Lori grinned. “Love to.” She grabbed her purse.

Harper waited for her at the door. They shared a secret smile. After they were gone Jess stared at the closed door for a long while. Lori and Chet were very lucky. They’d found each other and seemed to be on the right track for making their relationship work. So far, their personal lives hadn’t interfered with work. Jess was thankful. She wouldn’t want to part with either detective.

Cook cleared his throat and settled at his desk. “I’ll just keep going through the reports from the neighbors.”

Jess reined in her wandering thoughts. “As soon as I finish my lunch we’ll pay a visit to the ME. See how Dr. Baron’s coming along with the autopsies.”

Cook’s face brightened. “Awesome—I mean, yes, ma’am.”

What was that all about?

A firm knock on the door drew her attention there. Jess fully expected to see Dan walk through the door just to check up on her. He was keeping extra close tabs. The door opened and the man who strolled in was a stranger. Well dressed and reasonably handsome, but a stranger nonetheless. Before she could stop the automatic reaction, she was reaching for her bag and the Glock tucked there.

Cook was suddenly on his feet and in front of Jess’s desk, between her and the potential danger. She appreciated the move. It prevented her from doing something ridiculous like drawing her weapon. What was wrong with her? She was overreacting. This man had passed through security. The department’s security guards were on alert for trouble. There was no need for melodrama in her own office.

And she worried about Dan overreacting

“Can I help you?” Cook asked, demanded actually.

“I’m here to see Chief Harris.”

While Cook continued his interrogation, Jess moved around her desk. The man looked to be in his early thirties. He had dark hair and eyes and carried himself like a businessman.

So did Spears
. Appearance alone was rarely a measure of a man’s heart.

“You have a name?” Cook pressed on with his interrogation.

“Lieutenant Clint Hayes,” he said to Cook. “I’m here about the vacancy on your team.” The last he said to Jess.

. He was the detective Lori had said would make a great addition to their team. Jess had briefly reviewed his personnel file. Her preliminary assessment was that the man was vastly over qualified for his current assignment. A wasted resource she could certainly use in SPU.

She stepped forward and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you, Lieutenant.”

Cook still eyed him warily.

Hayes gave her hand a firm shake. “The pleasure’s mine, Chief.”

Though she hadn’t found the time to set up an interview with Hayes, maybe Lori or Harper had passed along the word that Jess was interested in speaking to him. However he’d heard, she was glad he was here. SPU could use the help.

“I’m glad you took the initiative and dropped by, Lieutenant.” Jess turned to the youngest member of her team. “This is Officer Chad Cook.”

The two men shook hands, visibly sizing each other up.

Jess gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Have a seat, Lieutenant.”

Cook sauntered back to his desk, dragged out his chair and collapsed into it. He was feeling a little outranked and Jess wanted that to change. They had to prepare him for the detective’s exam as soon as someone around here could catch their breath.

Hayes waited until Jess was seated before taking his.
Manners too. Nice.

Clint Hayes could be a high-powered executive. The suit was no everyday off the rack purchase. Reminded her of Richard Ellis’s taste for the finer labels, but Ellis’s taste had run more to the eclectic. From the lieutenant’s manner of dress to the way he carried himself he seemed the type who would have gone to school with Dan and all his rich friends. Only Clint Hayes hadn’t come from a rich family. Based on what Lori had told Jess about him, he’d come from the same side of Birmingham’s tracks as she had. He’d worked his way through college as a gigolo. His secret occupation had cost him his chosen career as an attorney.

If the guy was a good cop, Jess could care less how he paid his way through school. He’d cashed in on the one asset readily available.

Necessity is the mother of invention
. Something else they had in common.

Hayes cleared his throat. Jess blinked and scolded herself for letting her thoughts drift. She just couldn’t stay focused today. “You have uncanny timing, Lieutenant. We’re in the middle of a double homicide and we could certainly use some help. Did Detective Wells mention we have a vacancy on our team?”

Hayes smiled, the kind of flirtatious expression that made the ladies sit up and pay attention. “Actually, I heard the rumor and thought I’d get the jump on any official posting.”

Ambitious too, Jess admired that in a cop. “You’re acquainted with Detective Wells, do you also know Sergeant Harper?”

BOOK: Vicious
4.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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