Justin was still feeling good two hours later as he made his way through the run-down neighborhood known as the Hill District. Why it was a source of pride that this area had been the inspiration for a popular crime drama, he’d never understand. Normally, he hated when a case brought him into this high-crime, heavily littered section of Pittsburgh. It set his teeth on edge to see how casually overlooked the crime he fought was among these abandoned storefronts and rundown tenements. Fortunately for him, today was different. With Chelsea’s smile hanging in his memory and warming his heart, he barely noticed the calculating stares of the street corner hangers-on, or the suspicious glares of the pushers and pimps leaning against the chain link fence surrounding an empty lot.
Scanning the storefronts, he saw the grime-covered neon sign proclaiming Painted Lady in garish pink. Smothering a sigh, he pulled into an open space in front of the building and resigned himself to this task. The file on Maria Cavarella said she owned and operated a tattoo parlor out of this building. From that sign, he wasn’t too optimistic about what he’d find inside.
Shutting off his car, he slid out and double-checked the locks before turning toward the building. Frowning, he glanced back at his new BMW Z-3 roadster, uncertain it was a good idea to leave it parked along these unsafe streets. Not like he had much choice. He had to go into this building if he wanted to talk to Dominic Cavarella’s sister. Her file indicated she might have information about her brother’s marriage, but she’d avoided him with the adroitness of a trained spy. She hadn’t returned any of his calls — no big surprise if she was hiding unaired family laundry — but she also ignored the official requests sent from the District Attorney’s office for her to appear for questioning. That brought him here in person. For the sake of his case, he had to know what Maria knew about her brother and his wife.
Justin strode through the door of the graffiti-covered building before he could change his mind, and promptly wished he hadn’t. Even the loudly-rattling air conditioner, working overtime to cool the windowless space, didn’t mask the eerie jangle of a bell, before a feminine voice called out, “Just a minute!”
Uneasy, Justin glanced around the small lobby again, suppressing a shudder of disgust. He didn’t consider himself a prude — hell, with the dreams he’d been having since his first run-in with Chelsea, he should lock himself up for indecency — but this entire room gave him the creeps. It was like something straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s sickest fantasies. The furniture was dark wood and black leather, covered with an uncomfortable array of metal studs, and the deep red-brown hue of the walls reminded Justin of the few gruesome crime scenes he’d seen firsthand. The artwork covering the walls — if one took the liberty of calling grotesque charcoal drawings art — was clearly meant to shock as much as disturb. They all featured nude, tattooed models — both men and women — in various states of torment. Over each hovered a shadowy, bat-winged demon.
The beaded curtain rattled, and Justin was relieved to have somewhere other than those pictures to look. He snapped his gaze to the woman who’d come through the curtain, and stopped cold. She was tall and slim — emaciated-looking, really — and dressed in a black lace dress that flaunted a decided lack of curves. Spiked bands circled her neck and both wrists, and her dark hair was a wild mass of spikes that fell into her hollow, dark eyes. Her maroon-tinted lips curved wryly as she looked him up and down, before her eyes narrowed on his shocked expression. Clearly, his discomfort amused her.
“You don’t look like the tat type, sugar,” she observed in a Winston-and-whiskey drawl dripping with disdain. “Aren’t you in the wrong neighborhood?”
“I’m looking for Maria Cavarella.”
“You a cop?” Her gaze shuttered, her expression grown wary. Then, as she studied him, she snorted. “Of course not. Your suit’s too expensive. You must be one of Dom’s thugs, right?”
Thugs? Was she implying Dominic Cavarella had Mob connections? “Are you Maria Cavarella?”
She sighed heavily. “Yeah, that’s me. I told Dom I wasn’t gonna back down, so you can just kiss my Catholic–“
“Miss Cavarella, my name is Justin Blakely. I’m with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office. I need to talk to you about your brother, Dominic.”
She scowled. “He’s a pompous ass. There, you got what you wanted. Now, go away.”
“Miss Cavarella, I’m afraid that’s not enough.” He stopped her as she turned away. “Are you aware your brother was stabbed to death by his wife, two months ago? No one remembers seeing you at the funeral.”
She muttered something under her breath, and then barked a sharp laugh, before turning to face him again. “So? What do you want from me?”
Her attitude grated on his nerves. “So, it’s suspicious. I need to know where you were on June third, and if you know of any domestic difficulties Dominic and Marlene had, prior to the murder.”
She snorted indelicately. “Sugar, Dom and I haven’t spoken a word directly to each other since the sorry sonuvabitch threw me out and cut off my inheritance at his damned wedding. You think I’m working in this shabby dump because I like it here in the Hill District?” She looked him up and down, her gaze turning calculatingly heated. “You got company for tonight, sugar? I can free up my schedule if you want a tour.”
Suppressing a disgusted shudder at the thought of spending time with Maria, Justin scowled. “Whatever you’re trying to sell me, lady, I’m not buying. Your brother’s secretary said he received two calls from you the day of his murder, and he was on the phone for over an hour, both times. She also said he’s met with you at least three times in the past six months.”
An icy wall descended over Maria’s face, and her stance turned hostile. “I think we’re done here, Mr. A.D.A. You want to talk to me again, you call my lawyer. Otherwise, I don’t have to tell you a damned thing.”
And, as Maria Cavarella sashayed back through the beaded curtain, Justin couldn’t help but wonder if Chelsea didn’t just have something with her avowals of Marlene’s innocence. Compared to Dominic’s sister, Marlene Cavarella was a damned saint.
This wasn’t where she wanted to be, Chelsea acknowledged as she pulled into the sprawling, tree-lined driveway of the Gothic mansion abutting the Cavarella estate. The whitewashed stone walls of the old building looked cold and forbidding, and she shivered, hoping those walls weren’t harbingers of her acceptance here.
She wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the rich and famous today, but the police report listed supermodel Kimberly Manning as having assumed temporary custody of the Cavarella children at the time of their mother’s arrest, and Chelsea needed to talk to the kids.
Glancing through the oak trees forming the border between Ms. Manning’s home and the equally lavish Cavarella estate, Chelsea could see the taunting flicker of caution yellow dancing on the stiff afternoon breeze. Since Marlene’s arrest, police had cordoned off the Cavarella house and grounds for investigation, and she couldn’t wander into the crime scene without a writ or warrant from the judge, which wasn’t likely to happen. However, she could do the next best thing, for now. She could talk to Marlene’s teenage twins.
Not sure what to expect, Chelsea parked her car and walked toward the mansion’s front door, still wondering how she managed to get mixed up in a society murder case. Didn’t these people stick to their own? She frowned, recalling the last time she dealt with the rich. They certainly seemed inclined to band against her.
Shuddering in spite of the mid-afternoon warmth, Chelsea wondered how Sally stood the pressure of her case in Houston. It generated national media attention, and the trial was a circus. Sally shied away from any cases that might attract media attention, since then — a hard thing for a Private Investigator of her expertise to do — but Chelsea understood why. The longer Sally stayed out of the news, the longer she remained hidden from the Sentry Brigade.
If only she could stay out of the media limelight, too. Chelsea sighed as she rang the doorbell. A sweetly pitched voice called, “Just a minute!”
An instant later, the door opened, and Chelsea found herself looking into the smiling face that had adorned fashion magazine covers for the past three years. Kimberly Manning was a slim, beautiful woman with long, straight blonde hair and huge indigo eyes. Her softly tinted lips were curved into a welcoming smile that warmed her entire face and startled Chelsea. Weren’t models supposed to be cool prima donnas?
“Hi!” Kimberly said cheerily. “Can I help you?”
Chelsea blinked, nonplussed. “Do you always answer the door yourself?”
The musical cascade of Kimberly’s laughter was warm and friendly. “Usually. I like my private life to be private.” She winked. “I guess you can take the girl off the farm, but not the farm out of the girl. I grew up about two hours away from here, until high school. I thought I was so cosmopolitan, going to high school here, but all I did was prove how rural I really was.”
Chelsea nodded, unable to find a suitable reply. Clearly, Kimberly Manning’s magazine smile was the genuine article, as was the woman herself.
“Ms. Manning, my name is Chelsea Hanover. We spoke on the phone, earlier.”
Kimberly thought a moment. “Oh, right. Marlene’s attorney, right?”
Kimberly’s smile faded. “I can’t say I’m surprised someone killed Dominic, but I never would have suspected Marlene. She was always such a sweet, shy woman.”
Chelsea studied the woman carefully. How much did Kimberly know? “You know the Cavarella family well?”
Kimberly nodded, holding the door open as she stepped back. “Come on in. I’ll help you any way I can.”
As Chelsea followed the model through her house, wry humor bubbled up inside her. Kimberly wasn’t kidding about being a farmer’s daughter. There wasn’t any fancy art, or decorative furniture in the place. Everything was sturdy and functional, and there was very little clutter.
Kimberly saw her interested look, and grinned. “Not what you expect from a model, huh?” She shrugged, then. “I grew up with four brothers and two sisters. My mother didn’t believe in owning anything us kids could break, and clutter was just unacceptable.”
Chelsea smiled, then turned the conversation back to her case. “How well do you know the Cavarellas?”
Kimberly shrugged again, frowning. “I met Dominic about five years ago, when I was just starting out. My agent thought Cavarella Enterprises would be a good jumping off point for me. I guess he was right, but I wasn’t very thrilled by the idea, at the time. I’d heard a lot of bad stuff from industry people connected to Cavarella, and I didn’t want into any of that; it would have given my parents a stroke. And I didn’t care much for Dominic’s personality, when I met him. He was arrogant and domineering, and worked everyone at the agency nearly to death, but especially the models. He encouraged anorexic behavior in his models, badgering us to lose more weight. I ignored him, but most of the other girls were too afraid he’d kill their careers if they didn’t do what he wanted. I got out of there as fast as I could. Then, after the Paris show for Chritein Toumé three years ago, my agent had me buy this place, because I refused to move to New York or L.A. Marlene introduced herself to me almost immediately. I could tell she was lonely, shut up over there in that mausoleum with only two kids to keep her company. Not that they were much company, anyway.”
“Mr. Cavarella wouldn’t let her leave the house?”
Kimberly snorted. “Like I said, he was arrogant and domineering, and he particularly enjoyed lording it over his wife. Marlene made a lot of excuses for him, but I could see even she didn’t believe some of them. But she wouldn’t leave him, either. Not even when I offered to take her with me to my show in New York. I just wanted her to get out of there, to see that the world wasn’t as scary, alone, as she thought.”
“What did she say?”
Kimberly shook her head sadly. “She said Dominic had saved her. She’d worked too long and too hard to give him up.”
An eerie finger of dread ran down Chelsea’s spine. “If Marlene found out that her husband was having an affair, do you think she’d be capable of killing him to keep him?”
“No way,” Kimberly said firmly as they stepped onto the back patio. “You’d have to have seen them together to understand. Marlene was head-over-heels for that Neanderthal, but there wasn’t a shred of jealousy in her body. He flaunted his affairs in her face; I think he got some kind of power trip out of it. She gave up things for him, and she made his excuses, and she covered his tracks when he stepped out of line. The idea of facing life without him scared the hell out of her, and he used that power mercilessly.”
“What do you mean?”
Kimberly shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “He threatened to leave her constantly, just to hear her weep and beg him not to. He had affairs just to watch her crumble until she gave in to whatever he wanted. He thrived on her fear, and I don’t think she’s even aware of it.”
Chelsea frowned, remembering the soft-spoken, dainty woman she met two months ago. Marlene did seem well and truly beaten down — shaken, with an abandoned look in her eyes painful to see. But was it enough to prove the woman incapable of murder?
“Ms. Manning, I appreciate your candor in this matter. Would you be willing to testify to what you’ve told me, when this case goes to trial?”
“My mama taught me you have to stick up for people who can’t stand on their own. Of course I’ll testify.”
Chelsea smiled her thanks. “I need to speak with Mrs. Cavarella’s children, if you don’t mind.”
Kimberly shrugged. “I don’t mind, but they might. Tracy’s upstairs in her room. I’ll go see if I can convince her to come downstairs.”
Kimberly laughed sharply. “Your guess is as good as mine, Ms. Hanover. Timothy has a tendency to…disappear.”
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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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