In Plain Sight
by Angie Hulme
Robin closed the door to the flat, dropped zir purse to the floor and sighed with relief as ze sank onto the sofa, kicking off a pair of black heels. Eyes closed, ze dropped zir head back.
Contrary to popular belief, the life of an escort wasn’t so bad, if you did it right and managed not to get lost in the more addictive parts. Those who could balance the act were both happy and well-off – and many enjoyed their jobs. On top of which, there were good jobs available with reputable service providers that didn’t require any sexual activity – which was good for Robin.
With a small groan, ze got zirself off the sofa and in front of the bathroom mirror; stripping off zir v-necked bottle green top and a-line skirt and beginning to clean off zir subtly applied makeup. As ze cleaned and showered, ze began zir nightly flip through zir mental notebook.
Tonight has been the most fruitful night so far. After bribing an acquaintance for an introduction to a specific madam, and providing a few false – but checkable – references, ze had talked zir way into the service – not as an escort, but as someone who looked after the escorts. Ze had spent the weeks since working hard and befriending the women, trying to work zir way into the right company – the one with the information ze needed. It was nost an easy task: the women were closing ranks more and more as the police failed to catch the person killing them. Every day that passed affirmed their idea that the police didn’t care; that they shrugged and let whoever it was continue picking them off.
Robin was an undercover specialist, of sorts, able to blend in or stand out, befriend or antagonise. Whoever and whatever was required, Robin could find a way, and ze could do things the police couldn’t.
The women had been accepting zir slowly, and tonight one had opened up. She had called in sick, begged not to have to see her client – a regular – scheduled that night. Robin, sensing something more, had cancelled the appointment and gone to see her. She was flustered and afraid, but with some coaxing she began to talk. It was nothing to do with her regular, she had said quickly. Everything had just built up, become too much, until she had simply panicked at the thought of going out, again, into a world where somebody was trying to kill her and her colleagues.
Rowena had refused another client, she told Robin, some weeks ago, shortly before the first killing. Recognising him from warnings issued by the agency as the abusive ex-husband of an escort, she had backed out of the hotel bar he had arranged, under a false name, to meet in, and called the agency directly.
Shortly after that had been the first killing – a young woman, new to the agency – Christine had mentioned the ex-husband – his violence, his attempts to book Rowena and others – but the police had shrugged it off. The victim had no connection, other than working at the same agency. And after all, wasn’t it a dangerous line of work? The patronising tone had cut Christine deeply, although she fought not to show it.
After the second killing, however – this time a woman who had been with the agency for a while – one detective started to pay attention. Though unconvinced, he saw something in the savagery of the deaths that could, possibly, point to an ex-husband taking revenge on the work his ex-wife did. Work that had previously driven him into fits of violent jealousy. It was enough for Adam to want to look into.
He knew Robin from previous cases ze had worked on, and contacted zir to ask for zir help with an investigation that the police were unwilling to devote their time to. As Rowena talked, it looked as if that was starting to pay off. It was too late for his ex-wife, the third victim, or the other four, but maybe they could prevent any further deaths.
Robin saw Rowena home, then changed and called Adam. Ze was into zir second beer by the time the detective arrived at a nearby bar – his only concession to the atmosphere being the speedy removal of his tie. He slid into the booth opposite and gave zir a tired smile as he gulped the drink waiting for him.
“Robin. I’m glad you called – I was starting to worry.”
“I appreciate you not jumping the gun, I know it’s been a while, but these women are closed off at the best of times. With a killer hunting them, and the police not seeming to care? It took a while to work my way in.”
“But you have something?”
“I have a woman who bolted from a job, days before the first killing, because she recognised Carl – the ex-husband of the third victim.”
Adam took a few thoughtful mouthfuls of beer. “Absolutely certain of this?”
“I had the story from her, and she was dead certain it was him. Showed her a couple of photos to confirm, and she’s still dead certain. They were all shown his picture with a warning when he beat his ex to a pulp, and these ladies don’t forget those faces easily – their continued good health depends on it too often. He got her out to a hotel under a false name, but she recognised him and left.”
“This wasn’t reported to us?”
“I asked Christine about that – she she’s had enough experience to know how much hassle that would be for nothing.”
Adam nodded slowly, “Sad but true. So who’s the talker?”
Robin eyed him cautiously, “Your word you won’t approach her without my ok, and an advocate?”
Adam solemnly placed a hand on his heart, “My word.”
“Escort name’s Rowena Steel. Only Christine ever knows the real names – and she keeps them locked well away.”
“Alright. I’ll see what I can dig up on her, for when I need it. The real question now becomes why? If he wanted his wife dead and then got a taste for it, she’d have been first. If he’s killing to replace killing her, he wouldn’t have killed her and then carried on. I don’t get it. Why her, in the middle of the others?”
Robin sighed, “I’ve been trying to pick this one apart myself. If it was some guy without a connection to any of them, we’d assume he took issue with their jobs – mysogynistic prick who wants to clean up the streets, that sort of thing, right?”
“But with the ex-husband in play, it gets a lot weirder.”
Their drinks empty, Robin got up to fetch refills. Leaning on the bar, ze idly scanned the available snacks, tilting zir head to read the writing on one out-of-place packet of crisps, placed amongst the nuts. Carrying the drinks back, zir mind suddenly began to whirl. “What if…” ze started as ze sat down, “What if…”
Adam raised his eyebrows, waiting for the rest of the sentence.
“What if it’s not like the crisps!” Robin suddenly burst out; seeming to forget Adam was there.
“Huh?” he asked.
“At the bar, there’s a packet of crisps in with the nuts. It was put there probably by accident, and nobody noticed, or cared enough to move it. But the ex-wife, she’s out of place too. What if it’s not by accident, but on purpose.”
“If we didn’t have the ex-husband we’d be looking for somebody killing escorts, right? Mysogyny, morality, whatever – angry man killing sex workers. Right?”
“What if that’s who ex-husband wants us to be looking for? What if he killed her right in the middle of a handful of others, because he hoped it would hide him? Obfuscate the motives so we think he doesn’t fit, hide his real intended victim right in plain sight, and we spend all our time looking for the other guy.”
“That-that’s pretty fucking cold, right there.”
“Him or me?”
Adam laughed, “Both of you, actually. Little scary you figured it out, very scary he’s willing to kill that many people just to get at his ex-wife.”
Robin shrugged then frowned, “You’ve seen the victims, though – if this started as a really sick notion to kill his ex without getting caught, it’s more now…”
“He’s starting to enjoy himself,” Adam sighed. “Last report says pretty much the same thing – the killer is starting to have fun, find his stride.”
“So maybe it started with a handful in order to hide the one he really wanted to do. Now?”
“Now…” Adam sighed, “Now he might decide to keep going.”
They finished their drinks in silence and walked outside.
“What’s the plan next, then?” Adam asked. “They won’t give me anything without the proof.”
“I’m going to meet him. Join him on his level; see what I can turn up.”
“You think he’s gonna spill his big secret to you?”
“Well maybe if I got him drunk enough…” Robin smirked slightly, “But we’ll call that plan b. Plan a is to find a way to snoop around his place.”
“Alright. So who’ll be meeting him? Not your alter ego from the escort agency, obviously.”
“Not any woman,” Robin shook zir head, “This is not someone who respects or trusts women. He needs a buddy who knows just what he’s going through, and is willing to relate. I’d bet by now he’s desperate to share his secret with someone – might be he lets his guard down a little if he sees someone he might be able to trust.”
Adam nodded and held out his hand, “That’s a few too many maybes for my taste, Robin. Be careful. And call me soon, alright?”
Robin shook his hand and nodded, “I promise – on both counts.”
Robin rose early the next morning, called Christine to ask for a couple of days of personal time, called the firm of corporate lawyers where the ex-husband worked to set up a late lunch meeting, and stood in front of zir wardrobe, considering carefully. The cover ze was using had been carefully researched already – an overseas firm wanting to expand, looking for a good lawyer to be their go-to guy.
Carl wasn’t short on money, and liked his clothes to show it. Robin needed to match his style, but remain slightly below him. A peer, but a non-threatening one.
Robin chose a tailored navy suit with a light blue shirt and solid black tie. Completing the ensemble with matte black shoes and slicked back side-parted hair, ze studied the mirror until ze was sure ze looked like a successful and stylish professional.
Wondering if any of the women at the agency would believe zir to be the same person, Robin strolled from zir flat to the tube station, arriving at the chosen restaurant promptly at 1:30pm to find the ex-husband already present. Ze smiled inwardly – Carl was already trying to ensure he had control of the situation.
Robin strolled over and made a show of shaking his hand and being very glad to meet him. Not flustered, nor cowtowing, just allowing him to be the man in charge. As he ordered food and drinks, giving the waitress a charming smile, Robin studied him closely.
Ze had put together zir ensemble well. Carl was wearing a more expensive suit with a flashy purple shirt and tie, complete with matching tie-pin and cufflinks. Every strand of hair was perfectly in place, in a similar but neater side parting. He looked like the mentor and Robin the protégé – and Robin’s plan was to offer Carl the possibility of just such a relationship.
As they ordered, ate, drank, Robin allowed Carl to lead the conversation, letting him seem to teach and fascinate, whilst questioning repeatedly as if eager to soak up Carl’s knowledge. By the end of the meal Carl was relaxed in his seat, opining at length about whatever topics came to mind, but always returning to dwell on the unreliable and whoreish nature of women. Robin swallowed zir bile in order to nod agreement at Carl’s assessments, saying little but giving the man the impression that ze admired him.
Clearly enjoying the admiration, it took only a dropped hint, as they parted with a warm handshake, for Carl to invite Robin over to eat pizza and watch football the next day.
Invitation in the metaphorical bag, Robin strolled home to sleep.
The following day, ze called around until ze had obtained a football jersey and a crash course on team history and recent performance. With a stop to collect a case of beer, ze arrived at Carl’s apartment in plenty of time for the pre-match discussions.
Offering only enough to the conversation to sound interested; allowing Carl to once again feel the senior, teaching his junior the ways of the world (or at least the game); they settled comfortably into the pattern Robin had engineered.
Over pizza and beer, with a practiced sleight of hand trick during a tense moment of gameplay, Robin slipped a mild sedative into Carl’s drink. That and the alcohol together put Carl quickly into sleep, allowing Robin the freedom to prowl the house unhindered.
First, the obvious hiding places – under the mattress, in the toilet bowl, top shelf of the wardrobe – nothing. “Eh, too easy,” Robin muttered, “And yet…”
Ze opened the bathroom cabinet, tilting zir head to see that the inside and the outside did not match.
“Oh Carl, I thought you were smarter than this. You disappoint me,” Robin sighed sarcastically as ze flicked open zir penknife and opened the false back. Inside were folders, each with a name – most the names of escorts already killed, others recognisable as escorts from his agency: including Christine herself. Inside each folder were photographs, detailed notes and surveillance information, Before and After pictures of the victims he had already killed.
“Jack. Pot.” Robin smiled, taking out zir phone and snapping enough pictures to show the contents, then replacing everything carefully.
Ze turned around, ready to leave the apartment and call Adam, but Carl was already awake and standing between zir and the door.
“So you found my little project then,” Carl nodded at the cabinet.
Robin nodded, waiting to find out how much Carl had seen. If he had seen zir take photos then ze was busted.
Carl smiled, “Whores all of them. World is better off without them, and they’re better off dead.”
Robin lowered zir voice conspiratorially, “You…killed them?”
Carl nodded, his smile broadening but his eyes still narrowed, “Five of them so far. Including my bitchwhore ex-wife – in the middle of the rest, so they wouldn’t think about suspecting me.”
Robin widened zir eyes, “That’s clever!”
Carl finally relaxed, “I thought so. Now tell me, Robin – would you like to join me with the next one?”
Robin hesitated, then nodded, “I think…yes.”
Carl laughed and walked back into the living room, “I knew you were like me, Robin. Right away. You see these bitches for what they are. Scheming, worthless whores. Some of them look good on your arm, and some of them are worth bedding more than once, but eventually they’ll all start in with the nagging and the women’s rights bullshit and the trying to control you.”
Robin followed Carl, making affirmative noises. Ze was safe for now, as long as Carl was convinced they were of the same mind, but ze needed to get out – soon.
Interrupting Carl before his tirade reached full flow; Robin stood and drained zir beer.
“You’re leaving?” Carl stood too, looking put out.
Robin nodded slowly, “I need to think about…all this. About your invitation. I’ve never acted on-I mean, I’ve never hurt-“
Carl nodded his understanding and placed a hand on Robin’s shoulder,” Of course, of course. It didn’t come to me overnight either. Take your time, we can talk more soon. You’ll be here a little while, right?”
Robin hesitated, then remembered zir cover and nodded, “Till the deal goes through. Longer, if they decide to keep a consultant close by.”
“Excellent. Then we have plenty of time. Go and do what you need to do, and know that my phone and my door are both open to you whenever you’re ready to talk further.”
Robin nodded, shook Carl’s hand, and headed for the door, “Thanks for the pizza and the game.”
Carl chortled as he closed the door, “I know you’re not much of a fan, Robin, but I was impressed how much you picked up.”
Robin opened his mouth to reply, then shook zir head and left. As soon as ze was home and safe, he called Adam and gave him an update.
Adam stayed quiet until the very end, when he exploded, “What the fuck Robin?! That asshole could’ve caved your head in on the spot!”
Robin sighed, absently pacing the living room, “I don’t know what went wrong with the sedative; it should have kept him asleep. I’m lucky he only seems to have seen me putting everything back, not taking pictures of it, believe me I know how close that was. But look, you know where the evidence of his murders is, and you know he’s planning on doing it again – and I have photographic proof to show the judge when you go for the warrant.”
Adam groaned softly, “I already tried that. Unofficially, but I asked – if I could show proof, obtained by a private investigator, would that be enough? I was told, in words even a simple detective like me could understand: if a PI was paid to obtain the evidence, then no warrant.”
“I assume you brought up the myriad other times I’ve helped the police in very similar ways? The times when what I just did – hell, less than I just did – had them throwing out warrants for every tiny little thing you asked for?”
Adam gave a heavy sigh and said nothing.
“Huh,” Robin sat down heavily. “It’s because of who the women are, isn’t it. Who was it you asked? One who uses the service and doesn’t want to get caught, or one who hates escorts and prostitutes and probably most other women, and punishes them at every turn? Someone, gee, not so different from Carl himself, perhaps?
“All the above, actually,” Adam said reluctantly. “I tried every judge I could find, and none will sign off on a warrant. You know this district – not a female judge in attendance: nothing but a pantheon of good ol’ boys. These guys are mostly still pissed slavery was abolished, never mind suffrage and god-fucking-forbid anything vaguely non-heterosexual. The one or two who might want to sign off on this are too afraid of the consequences from the rest to do it.” Adam gave a sigh that was more a growl, “Robin, I’m sorry.”
Robin took a deep breath. This wasn’t the first time who ze was had been a roadblock, and it wouldn’t be the last. Feelings of hurt could wait. “Not your fault, Adam, I know that. So we need, what, to catch him red-handed? Wait for him to capture another woman and hope we can get to him before he kills her too, but far enough along that even those self-serving hypocrites can’t argue?”
Both men were silent for a long moment.
“Alright, then,” Robin said eventually. “I’ll set Carl up for you to catch. I’ll give him a partner, and a woman to kill – just swear by everything you hold dear that you will be there before he actually hurts her.”
“Robin, they’ll arrest you too!”
“Not if I’m in on it, and the woman is in on it, and you’re in on it. And fuck it, Adam, so what if they do at first? It won’t be for long.”
“But Robin…even a short while…even just a local cop shop…for you? That could be dangerous. So could telling this place you’ve been working. So could every single bit of this. You could get yourself killed at every turn!”
“Technically I can only get myself killed at one turn. The rest would be redundant.”
“You know what I mean!”
“I do. And it’s nice that you’re concerned. But the very worst that could happen to me is nothing compared to what Carl could do. At least this entitled, murderous little shit won’t be on the streets hurting anyone else. You’ve trusted me so far, not just with this but with everything else. Trust me now, and tell me I can trust you to be where and when I tell you to be. ”
Adam gave a long sigh,” I get the feeling you’d set this up even without me. Alright. If you’re sure – and you can become unsure at any time. Just keep me in the loop, ok?”
“I promise. I’ll be in touch soon.”
The next day, Christine sat across her desk from Robin, staring speechlessly as ze explained who ze really was, and why ze had been working there. Trusting in what ze knew of her, Robin had told her everything and sat, now, hoping that zir judgement had been correct.
Christine looked at him for a long time, her face unreadable, before finally speaking. “I have a lot – a lot – of questions for you. And some of them are going to be angry,” she paused. “They all come second on my priority list right now. Robin, promise me that you’ll come back, when this is over, and give me my chance to speak my mind.”
Robin nodded, “I’ll come back, I’ll answer questions, and I won’t make a sound in my defence against your anger. I promise.”
“If you don’t, I will hunt you down.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Then that’s settled. For now,” Christine took a couple of breaths, as if setting aside everything else, before continuing. “Am I right in my understanding that you need someone to act as the bait, while you string this bastard along and right into the arms of the police?”
Robin nodded again. “I know it’s a huge thing to ask of one of your women, but-“
Christine held up a hand, silencing zir, “If it stops more of us being killed, not really. You said I’m one of the women he’s been watching?”
Robin nodded again.
“Then you have your bait. What do you need me to do?”
Two days later, dressed smartly, but carefully rumpled to suggest lack of sleep, Robin sat across from Carl at his kitchen table. Spread out between them were the folders of the women Carl had been watching. The two studied the information intently.
“That one,” Robin said eventually, turning the picture of Christine towards Carl. “She’s in charge of this company – get rid of her, and they’re all ours.”
Carl looked up at him thoughtfully, “And you know this how?”
Robin shrugged, “I googled it, read everything I could about the place.”
“You have a plan, then?”
“She does occasionally go out to see clients herself. It’s rare, she’s cautious about who she accepts, and she doesn’t advertise it, but if we offer her the right type of person at the right price, she’ll be ours.”
“Someone rich, unmarried, young – but not someone who flaunts it all over the press. Someone persuasive, to talk her into it. Someone who knows that while she dresses the part, she doesn’t like silk sheets and fancy hotel rooms. She prefers to see people in their homes – ordinary surroundings, I think, with nothing to take away from her extraordinary…abilities.”
“You got all that online?”
“Takes a little between-the-line reading, but, yeah.” Robin smiles. “So?”
Carl looked at him for a moment then leaned back and laughed, “Robin you sure are a surprise. Been expecting the police at my door every hour since the other night, but here you are with the perfect plan to take out the queen of the whores.”
Robin grinned, “Well, I guess maybe I’ve thought about it before…I just never acted on it,” Robin shrugged. “But listen, Carl, you should be the one calling – you’ll be more convincing than I could be.”
Carl studied Robin and nodded, “True. We need to bring you up in the world a little – and we will – but I’ll take this one. I’ve even got the perfect place to use. It used to be a company place for visiting investors and the like. I bought it when they downsized a little. It’s empty, and it’s off the beaten track.”
Robin smiled, “Sounds perfect. Just tell me when and where, and I’ll be there.”
Carl nodded and stood, “Which means you should go now. Prepare yourself, it’s not a small thing you’re about to do. Oh, and, try to make sure nobody sees you – not leaving here, not going there.”
Robin nodded zir understanding, “I will.”
The next day the text came: a time, an address, a warning to “DELETE THIS NOW!” Robin saved it, backed up zir phone to zir computer, and called Adam with the information.
“Got it. I’ll be outside by the time you get there. You’ll have fifteen minutes, then we’re coming in.”
“Thanks Adam. I’ll see you in a little while.”
That done, Robin dressed in dark clothing and left home, taking a leisurely stroll to the address given. With a swift knock, he entered, “Anyone home?”
“Bedroom,” came the reply.
Robin opened the bedroom door and stopped in his tracks, “Wh-Carl, what-“
Carl was nowhere to be seen, but bound and gagged on one side of the bed was Christine. Robin turned to look for Carl, but too late – he erupted from behind the door and knocked Robin over the head, sending zir to the floor, blacked out.
When Robin woke up, ze was tied and gagged beside Christine, Carl standing above the two of them. In one hand he held a hunting knife.
“Ah, awake again, good,” he held up the knife, “My father bought me this, you know. Said every man needed to know how to hunt, and had my gut my first deer with it when I was 13. Crazy old bastard had plenty to say on a lot of things, especially women – shit, he beat my mother to death before I could even walk! I mostly ignored him, until I got married myself. Then I started to realise he’d been right all along. Almost made me wish I hadn’t shoved him in the lake that time. Old fool couldn’t swim.” Carl chuckled slightly at the memory. “It stopped him kicking my ass into a square every chance he got, though, so I figured I could deal. My wife, on the other hand…after we got married she turned into everything my dear old dad said. So I divorced her. She sucked up my income for a while, and then turned to whoring. I decided to do something about it – ex wife she might be but she was still ruining my name by fucking every man that paid her. What kind of man was I, that my ex would do that, hm?” Carl paced the room, his knife drawing pictures with each gesticulation.
“Anyway,” Carl stopped by the side of the bed, looking down at Robin, his face a snarl, “I figure you worked out the rest, smart fella like you – or…are you a fella? Boss Whore here seems to think otherwise. Good job I decided to play safe, get her here and under control early, hm? Bitch went on and on about how her heroes would be here to rescue her.” Carl scoffed, “Some hero you are, you fucking freak.”
Carl placed his knife against the outside of Robin’s trousers, “Maybe I find out what the fuck you are before I kill you. Maybe…I make you into neither one or the other before I kill you. How’s that sound, hm?”
Robin stared down Carl without flinching, even though every nerve in zir body strained to fight.
Carl laughed and raised his knife, turning it in his hand so the blade pointed down, the metal glinting in his eyes.
Two loud bangs and Carl fell, slumping over Christine and Robin even as he let out his last breath.
Robin looked up into Adam’s concerned face, and gave him a grin, “Thanks for that.”
Adam rolled his eyes and set to untying them both.
Copyright ©2014 Angie Hulme
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the Author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.