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Excerpt for Claws (A Jack Nightingale Short Story) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


CLAWS


By Stephen Leather


© 2018 Stephen Leather


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Jack Nightingale appears in the full-length novels Nightfall, Midnight, Nightmare, Nightshade, Lastnight, San Francisco Night and New York Night. He also appears in other short stories including Cursed, Still Bleeding, Tracks, I Know Who Did It, My Name Is Lydia, The Asylum, The Creeper, Children Of The Dark, The Undead, Wrong Turn, and The Cards. The Jack Nightingale timeline is complex – Claws is set after Lastnight.



TABLE OF CONTENTS

CLAWS



CLAWS


Food.

The smell of food overcame everything else, even the stench of fear that radiated from the prey. The hunter stared unblinking at it, drew air in through flared nostrils, opened its mouth, showing the huge incisors and growled menacingly.

The prey gaped, struggling to process what its pitiful small eyes saw before it, certain death standing just eight feet away, poised to strike. Its tiny mouth with its pathetic weak teeth opened and closed, and a whining noise came from it, wordless, yet eloquent testimony to the terror coursing through its veins.

The hunter breathed deeply again, drinking in the fear, and once again the smell of fresh meat. The claws protracted, the shoulder muscles tensed and the powerful thighs eased backward, poised to spring. Hunger, and hatred, contempt and anticipation mingled in the coursing blood, as it waited for the moment of truth, relishing the helplessness of its quarry.

The prey looked around helplessly for an escape route, a weapon, some forlorn hope, but there was none. Finally it seemed to accept its fate, staring submissively into the impassive and merciless eyes of its executioner, the eyes that would be the last thing it would ever see.

The hunter’s muscles exploded in a frenzy of killing fury as it sprang.

* * *

‘Mr Nightingale, they were the footprints of a giant cat. There is no doubt about that.’

Jack Nightingale took a long drag on his Marlboro, blew smoke up at the ceiling, raised one eyebrow and pursed his lips. ‘Seems pretty unlikely,’ he said.

‘The police called in animal experts,’ said the woman. ‘The marks on the floor were definitely from giant feline paws. And the claw marks on the body fitted the same pattern.’

Nightingale looked closely at her while he thought of his next question. In her mid-thirties, obviously took good care of herself. The blonde hair was immaculately cut and colored, the black suit looked expensive, as did the open-necked white shirt. And her pearls could be real, for all he knew. If she’d been crying over her husband’s death, she’d either gotten over it quickly, or hidden it very skilfully with high quality make-up.

‘But how could a big cat manage to find its way up to a third-floor apartment?’ asked Nightingale. ‘And then got out again? You told me the front door was shut, and tigers don’t do doorknobs, as far as I know.’

Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. ‘If that’s English humor, I don’t need it or appreciate it, Mr Nightingale. My husband is dead, remember?’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Nightingale. ‘I wasn’t really trying to be funny, just pointing out the facts. But the windows don’t open, so how could a big cat have gotten in and out of here? And without any of the other tenants seeing anything. It makes no sense, Mrs Cresswell.’

‘I never said it did. All I know is what the police told me. I was up here the whole time. Dan worked in Florida during the week and stayed in a rented apartment. I’ve never been near the place. I couldn’t even find Gladesville on a map.’

Nightingale frowned. ‘So what are the police doing about it?’

‘Pretty much nothing, as far as I know. They seem to have no witnesses, no suspects, no motive and no idea how he was killed. That’s why I called you.’

‘Yes, you did,’ said Nightingale, taking another drag on his cigarette. Vivienne Cresswell had given him permission to smoke in her home, but the slight pursing of her lips as he smoked suggested that she wasn’t really all that happy about it. ‘Though you haven’t explained exactly how you knew where to contact me. I don’t tend to advertise.’

‘The person who told me about you didn’t want their name mentioned, but said you’d helped them in the past. Helped with something else for which there seemed to be no rational explanation.’

Nightingale gave that one some thought. There were quite a few people who might fit that description, though several of them were dead now. Still, it seemed Vivienne Cresswell wasn’t going to be satisfying his curiosity. He exhaled more smoke. ‘So why would anyone want your husband dead, Mrs Cresswell?’ he asked. ‘Did he have any enemies?’

‘Of course not, he was a businessman,’ she said, frostily. ‘He was CEO of Cresswell Explorations, he was down there looking for gas, he wasn’t the kind of man who made enemies.’

Nightingale tried again. ‘Any ex-girlfriends who might have borne a grudge?’ Her eyes flashed, and he held up his hands in surrender. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘But I have to start somewhere, and sometimes the obvious answers are the right ones. So, no exes, no current affairs, no jealous husbands?’

She pursed her lips, but gave the question a few moments thought. Finally she shook her head. ‘No, not to my knowledge,’ she said, her voice quieter now, and she seemed to be choosing her words more carefully. ‘We never had any problems in the bedroom, but then I have a lot of friends who thought their husbands could be trusted, and were proved wrong. All I can say is that I never had any reason to doubt Dan’s fidelity. On the other hand, he was a very attractive man, so I can’t dismiss the possibility.’

Nightingale nodded.

‘OK,’ he said. ’While we’re at it, I’ll assume no threatening letters or e-mails, no strange phone calls, no business rivals with a grudge?’

‘Again, none that I know of,’ she said. ’You know, the police asked all the same questions.’

‘They would,’ said Nightingale. ‘There are only so many questions that can be asked, and if they were stumped, chances are I will be too, unless the answer is something that the average cop wouldn’t ever consider.’

‘Like what?’

‘I have no idea, and I won’t be getting one hanging around here. If you really want me to look into it, you’ll need to hire me, give me a letter of authority to act on your behalf, and I’ll be needing to go down there for a while. That could work out expensive, and there’s no guarantee I’d find out more than the cops. I don’t want to waste your money.’

‘Money’s not an issue, Mr Nightingale. My husband was a very wealthy man, and my father was Webster Danforth.’

There was a silence, while Nightingale decided whether he should ask, or just look impressed. He took the riskier option. ‘Sorry, I’m not from around these parts.’

She smiled, for pretty much the first time since the butler had shown him in. ‘Well, I guess an Englishman might not be familiar with Danforth toothpaste, she said, ‘But it was one of the leading brands up here, until my father sold out to Unilever in the eighties. He left it all to me, so, as I said, money won’t be an issue. Tell me what you need and I’ll have it wired to your bank today.’

Nightingale grimaced. ‘I don’t trust banks all that much,’ he said. ‘I’d prefer a cash advance.’ He named a figure which was twice his usual fee, but Vivienne Cresswell didn’t even blink.

‘That will be fine. Kar…the person who recommended you said you could be trusted, but not instructed, and that you’d do things your own way. I’ll have the money delivered to your hotel this afternoon, along with a plane ticket to Fort Myers. Apparently that’s the nearest airport, I’ll arrange car hire too.’

‘I’ll get started right away,’ said Nightingale.’

She looked straight at Nightingale, and he could see her eyes starting to redden. ‘Mr Nightingale, I’m not a particularly demonstrative person, but be assured that I loved my husband very much, and I’m going to miss him terribly. It might be some small consolation to me to know that whoever did this to him will be caught and punished.’

Nightingale nodded. ‘Believe me, Mrs Cresswell, I’ll do everything I can.’

* * *

Fort Myers Airport was the nearest major hub. The Florida summer weather was hot and dry, and the air-conditioning in Nightingale’s Ford Escape had been working overtime for almost all the journey as the precise voice of the GPS system guided him to Gladesville. Vivienne Cresswell had reserved a room for him at the Plaza Hotel which seemed pretty central, and was certainly a cut above the roach motel Nightingale would probably have found if he’d been paying himself. He arrived in the early evening, treated himself to a room service dinner and showered before taking out the file that his client had given him and studying it while he lay on the bed and smoked.

Dan Cresswell had indeed been a good-looking guy in life, if the photos were to be believed, and had kept himself in shape. Somewhere just over six feet with mid-length dark blonde hair and a tan which looked as if he’d got it the natural way. He and Vivienne looked as if they belonged together and every photo she’d given him showed them smiling blissfully at the camera. Nightingale’s naturally suspicious nature caused him to wonder whether it was all too good to be true. Vivienne Cresswell hadn’t mentioned any problems, and Dan wasn’t around to ask, but maybe he could find someone else who knew them who might open up. Assuming there was anything to open up about.

Vivienne had included copies of the local coroner’s report and the information the police had shared with her, most of which just restated what she’d told him in New York. The whole thing seemed cut and dried, Dan Cresswell had been killed by a giant cat in a third-floor apartment room. Cut and dried, but completely impossible.

Nightingale could think of nothing useful to do until the morning, and badly needed rest after his journey, so found an old movie on the TV to help put him to sleep. He’d be starting with the people who so rarely seemed pleased to see a private detective. The Police.

* * *

Detective Mike Stone was probably in his early fifties, and looked every year of it and more. Nightingale guessed his weight at around two-twenty pounds, not much of it muscle, and he didn’t look to be anything more than average height, as far as could be judged with him slumped back in his chair. His dark green sport jacket had probably been bought twenty pounds previously, and needed cleaning, especially around the shoulders, where the dandruff from his badly cut grey hair settled. The shirt collar, even with the top button undone, looked to be straining to cope with his neck, and his dark grey tie was loosened and bore a couple of food stains. His eyes were small and bloodshot, the lids hooded. The evidence of his teeth and fingers suggested a long-term smoking habit. He gave no sign of enthusiasm or interest as Nightingale was shown into his office, certainly not enough to get up or offer a greeting. He waved to the chair in front of his desk. Probably not a methodical man, thought Nightingale, judging from the piles of disordered papers that covered the desk.

Stone studied his visitor for a full minute before speaking.

‘Front desk says you want to talk about the Cresswell case. What’s your interest in him?’

‘His wife hired me to look into it,’ said Nightingale.

The detective’s eyes narrowed. ‘She not happy with the job we’ve been doing?’

‘Her husband’s dead, nobody knows how and nobody’s been arrested. Maybe she thought another pair of eyes and feet might help.’

‘British feet in suede shoes? What can you do that we can’t?’

‘Probably not that much,’ admitted Nightingale. ‘Maybe it just helps her feel better, to know she’s doing everything possible. I don’t want to get in the way of your investigation.’

Stone smiled at that. ‘I’m not sure we have an investigation for you to get in the way of. Three weeks and we got no motive, no suspects and no cause of death that makes any sense at all. She wants to hire you, can’t see how you could make things any worse. I got no problem with you, but anything you find out comes straight to me? Got it?’

Nightingale nodded. ‘You mind if I ask you a few questions?’ he asked.

Stone shrugged carelessly. ‘Figured you’d want to. You need a cigarette too?’

Nightingale smiled. ‘Takes one to know one, I guess. Do we go outside?’

‘We can do better than that, Florida’s still not fallen to the health nazis completely, we can’t smoke in an enclosed workplace, but bars are still OK. There’s one across the street and I’m due a break, though I’ll need to keep it to coffee on duty.’

‘Sounds good,’ said Nightingale. ‘Lead me to it.’

* * *

Nightingale followed Stone across the road into the Shamrock Bar where they took a booth and ordered two coffees. They lit cigarettes, but stayed quiet until the young waitress in tight jeans and an even tighter tee-shirt had brought the two cups. Stone took a sip, then nodded at Nightingale. ‘So, what can I tell you?’ he asked.

‘What do I need to know?’

‘From the top, and from memory. Daniel Charles Cresswell Junior, thirty-five years of age, president, CEO and sole owner of Cresswell Gas Exploration. Found deceased in Apartment 3:25 at 1435 South 12th Avenue, three weeks ago, the 15th, as far as I remember. It was Monday when the maid found him, MO said he could have been dead since late Saturday. Cause of death, massive wounds to the throat, stomach, chest and legs. Could have come in any order apparently, though they guess the throat wound was the fatal one.’

Nightingale knew most of that from the report he’d read the night before, but said nothing. He was hoping Stone could tell him things that hadn’t been released to the public, but pushing too hard too soon would be a mistake. He let the man tell it at his own pace.

‘All the windows were shut, the door was locked from the inside, but could have been pulled shut. Dead lock and bolt weren’t on.’

Nightingale nodded.

Stone sipped his coffee. ‘We did all the things you’d expect. The maid was out of it, visiting relatives in Jacksonville all weekend. Wife too, plenty of witnesses put her in New York. No sign of any marital problems. No enemies, no death threats. No motive that we could find, no vengeful girlfriends, no wronged husbands, no disgruntled employees, nobody he owed money to, nothing seemed to have been stolen.’

Another nod from Nightingale.

‘So nothing,’ continued Stone. ‘No leads. But that’s not the worst of it, not by a long way. That came when we got the DNA results.’

Stone paused, almost inviting Nightingale to respond. Nightingale decided to decline the invite, but lit another cigarette. Stone was no stranger to the game, so lit a cigarette of his own and showed no sign of resuming. Finally Nightingale decided Stone was doing the favor so he’d play it his way and he broke the silence. ‘So, you found other DNA in the room?’

‘Yeah, Cresswell’s, the maid’s, traces of a few other people. And a whole bucket-load from our principal suspect.’

‘Someone in the files?’

‘Not hardly, as I guess you know. Our lab boys couldn’t place it, but the zoo guys did. One hundred per cent certainty. Blood-stained paw prints, tooth and claw marks on the body to match. The guy was ripped to pieces by a Florida panther.’ He sat back and watched to see how he’d react to the news.

Nightingale raised his eyebrows, but no more. The interview with Vivienne Cresswell had pretty much prepared him, though it hadn’t come close to explaining it. Stone’s matter-of-fact statement of the impossible made it sound even more ridiculous. ‘There’s no possibility that he was killed elsewhere and brought back to the room?’ asked Nightingale.

‘Not a one. MO said he bled out right where he was, and there were pieces of him all over the room.’

‘So somebody put a panther in there with him?’

‘You think? How much do you know about Florida panthers?’

‘It wouldn’t be my specialist subject on Mastermind.’

‘What?’

‘Forget it,’ said Nightingale. ‘English humor.’

‘Yeah, I heard about that. Anyway, I know a lot more about them than I did a month ago. This is a wild animal, same as a puma, cougar or mountain lion, except down here they’re always called panthers. They can get to seven feet long, weigh maybe a hundred and fifty.’

‘So you don’t put one in a cat basket?’ said Nightingale.

Stone didn’t seem to pick up on the sarcasm. ‘You do not. And you don’t put one on a leash and walk it through the streets. And if you do, people are going to notice. And if you put one in a crate and transport it to an apartment building by truck then get a crane to lift it to the third floor, people are going to notice that too.’

Nightingale grinned. ‘But you asked around anyway?’ he said.

Stone gave him a long look, as if he’d just noticed something for the first time. ‘Let me guess, you were a cop once?’

‘Why do you say that?’ asked Nightingale.

‘You got the look, plus you know when to keep quiet. Of course we asked, no surprises. People saw mailmen, paper boys, girl scouts, at least five different women they said looked like hookers, any number of people ‘acting suspicious’, old ladies, a guy in a wheelchair...not one of them saw a hungry wild cat. And I guess it’s the sort of thing you’d remember.’

‘You’d think so,’ agreed Nightingale.

‘So, nobody sees it going in, nobody sees it coming out and pulling the door behind it.’

‘Nobody heard anything?’

‘Nothing that sounded like a guy being torn apart by a big cat. Neighbors were in and out all weekend, and the walls are thick...but still...’ He shrugged.

‘Any chance he was killed with a rake or something, and then panther DNA left as a distraction?’

Stone snorted dismissively. ‘Nice try. Someone carrying a rake around looks a little conspicuous, and they don’t sell Panther DNA in drug stores.’

‘It didn’t really seem likely. I’m just clutching at straws.’

Stone nodded. ‘After three weeks, so are we. Besides, if you want to just kill a guy, why go to that kind of trouble? They sell guns and knives down here. It’s a lot less effort.’

‘What did the coroner say?’

‘Left it open. What else could he do?’

‘So where are you with it now?’

‘Nowhere,’ said Stone. ‘We have plenty of evidence, all of which leads us to something impossible. Chief suspect is a Florida Panther, there’s no way one could have been in that room. You can’t call it murder unless we can show someone put the animal in the room. I can’t arrest all the local panthers.’

‘There are some around?’ asked Nightingale.

‘Sure, zoos, sanctuaries. Nobody’s missing one.’

‘Private owners?’

Stone shook his head. ‘Nope, they’re protected animals, you can’t get a license to keep one. Course, there may be some guy who’s keeping one illegally, but that still doesn’t explain how it got up there. Damned thing makes no sense at all. it’s plain impossible.’

Nightingale nodded, that was surely the way it seemed, though these days his definition of ‘impossible’ was a lot more flexible than it had been.

* * *

Nightingale knew that a lot of detective work consisted of asking people questions they’d already answered, in the hope either they’d remember something new, with the off chance that maybe he’d even think of a new question. Trouble was, a lot of his questions and theories tended to make no sense to people who hadn’t been through some of his experiences. Still, wearing out Hush Puppies was an occupational hazard of the job. Not that there was usually all that much walking to do in American cities - the car was king.

He drove his rental car to the Gladesville Zoo. Stone had given him the name of his contact, and a business card with a note scribbled on the back, which got him in to see Dr. Sally Taylor, head of the large feline department. She met him at reception, a tall, lithe, copper-skinned woman with short dark hair and bright yellowy-green eyes. She looked about the same age as Nightingale, and her white tee-shirt and tight jeans showed that she kept herself in excellent shape. Her handshake was firm as she introduced herself.

‘Mr Nightingale? Dr. Taylor, but call me Sally.’

‘Jack, please.’

‘Good to meet you Jack. You come from Mike Stone, you with the police too?’

‘No, I’m working for a woman called Vivienne Cresswell, in connection with the death of her husband.’

Sally nodded. ‘I remember, we did a lot of lab work on it. Not usual for us to work with the police. Follow me, we can talk in my office.’

Sally’s office had been adequately furnished without any unnecessary expense, the only distinguishing feature being the prints of big cats decorating the walls. She waved him to a chair, and sat in the black leather seat behind her cluttered desk, papers overflowing her IN tray and books piled up on the left.

‘Sorry about the mess,’ she said. ‘I’m a much better animal doctor than administrator.’

Nightingale smiled. ‘I was never much good at paperwork myself, seemed to breed faster than rabbits.’

She returned his smile. ‘Seems that way. You’ve talked to Sergeant Stone, so you know what we told him. So what can I tell you?’

‘OK, I’m guessing you know panther DNA when you see it and there’s no possibility of a mistake.’

‘Yes we do, and no there isn’t.’

‘So, could you actually tie the DNA they sent you to one specific panther?’

‘Of course, just like with people, it’s unique. And, in case you were wondering, it wasn’t from one of our animals, or any one we’ve treated and released back into the wild.’

‘You don’t know of any missing panthers in the area?’

She smiled. ‘It’s not the kind of thing you lose. No, I know of no missing panthers.’

Nightingale thought for a few moments. This didn’t seem to be getting him too far and still wasn’t answering the big question of how an animal that size could have got in and out of Cresswell’s apartment.

‘OK, could you tell me more about the animals themselves?’

She stood up and motioned him toward the door.

‘I can do a lot better than that, Jack. Why not come and visit with our cats?’

* * *

The two cats were tan colored with cream underbellies, their tails and ears tipped with black. Nightingale was fascinated by their eyes, which seemed to shift from yellow to blue, as they stared at him, The larger one, which he assumed was the male, seemed to fix its gaze right on him, without a trace of friendliness, before walking away from the bars with a contemptuous sounding hiss, and a confident roll of its shoulders. The female stood at the bars and chirped at Sally, seeming to recognize her as a friend.

‘I don’t think he likes me much,’ said Nightingale.

‘Nonsense,’ replied Sally, ‘I’m sure he’d find you very tasty.’

‘That’s reassuring, do they often attack humans?’

‘Well, if you need reassurance, I can provide that easily enough. Statistically you’d be far more likely to be killed by a dog, horse, snake, bear or by bees. In fact, there’s not a single documented instance of a Florida Panther attacking a human being.’

‘Except Dan Cresswell?’

‘Including Dan Cresswell, whatever the Police might think. It’s quite impossible that one of these animals sneaked up three floors of an apartment building, knocked on the door, killed him and wandered back home again. They’re hardly stalking the streets of Gladesville. Besides, they avoid contact with humans.’


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