San Bernardino County
Six Years Earlier
What the hell is she doing here?
From his beat up, unmarked car, Dylan O’Keefe squinted into the night, his eyes narrowing on a figure darting through the shadows of the empty lot across the street. Watery blue light, from a single street lamp at the corner of the street illuminated the weed-choked space were a couple of abandoned vehicles had been left to rust and the air was thick, smells of exhaust and wood smoke heavy in the air, though no traffic was visible, no fires burning.
But there had been in this small town in the foothills of the mountains, and recently as evidenced by the cluster of four-wheel drive units parked near the de Maestro hide out.
Though it was December, the terrain was dusty, a hardscrabble landscape for what was essentially a ghost town, abandoned for the most part after the gold in the surrounding hills had been depleted a hundred years before. Only a handful of residents called this town home, one of which was the bungalow with its sagging tile roof and dirty stucco walls. The porch had rotted and been repaired and the stuff in the yard, the kids toys and Christmas decor was, no doubt, part of the facade, an attempt to make the house fit into the neighborhood, to looked “lived in” by a family.
All a lie.
And about to come crashing down.
Except that now, in the middle of the stakeout, an effort to ensure that Alberto de Maestro was, indeed, within the dingy walls, a dark figure was slinking through the shadows, a figure he’d recognize anywhere as Detective Selena Alvarez. Everything they’d worked for, the operation that had been in play for sixteen months, was suddenly about to go sideways.
Damn it! “You see her?” he whispered his partner.
“Mmmmhmmm.” Rico, forever noncommital was nodding slowly, his fleshy face sweating in the lamplight, his eyes focused in the direction of the empty lot.
“She can’t be here!”
“Leave it be.” But even Rico was at attention as Selena crossed the sagging fence between the two lots, now on de Maestro’s property with its ramshackle bungalow, shades drawn, the yard littered with toys and Christmas decorations, most of which had lights that had burned out. Even the string wound around the base of the single palm tree outside was missing bulbs.
All part of a front anyway.
O’Keefe reached up, turned off the interior light and opened the passenger door.
“Wait? What’re you doing?” Rico was at attention now.
O’Keefe didn’t wait for recriminations or arguments. He’d already landed on the cracked cement, his service weapon drawn. He had to get to her, to call her back.
This was all wrong.
If de Maestro got wind that she was outside . . . Silently he crossed the street, was aware of a breeze rolling over the asphalt, kicking up dry leaves and a rustling a plastic bag that skated past a few parked cars. A dog, penned in the yard, hidden in the night started barking wildly.
Oh, God, no!
Still Alvarez moved forward.
Don’t! He silently screamed, fear curdling inside him. What was she thinking? Why was she here? The dog began to howl. Get back! This is nuts–
Blam! A side door flew open.
“Shut up!” a man yelled from the doorway, his lean body in silhouette a handgun visible. Alberto de Maestro. Target of the sting. Linchpin of the de Maestro drug cartel. What the hell was he doing here? Jesus, God!
No! No! No!
O’Keefe’s heart pounded in his ears.
Another man appeared in the doorway, obviously trying to talk some sense into de Maestro, to pull him inside, but the bigger man was having none of it and as the dog quieted and somewhere in the distance a siren wailed, he turned, looking straight at Alvarez.
A smile as evil as all of hell, curved his lips, showing off white teeth as he raised his gun. “Perra,” he said aiming, his voice slurred.
Running now, his weapon raised, O’Keefe yelled, “Drop it! Police! Policia! Alberto de Maestro, drop your weapon!”
“Fuck off!” Spinning agilely, de Maestro turned his gun on O’Keefe. His malicious grin widened. The devil himself. “Feliz Navidad, bastardo!” With that, he pulled the trigger!
Her skin was tinged with blue.
Her flesh becoming stiff—-which was perfect.
Her eyes, through the ice, stared upward, yet they saw nothing and, unfortunately she couldn’t appreciate how much love, affection and thought was going into this work.
No longer did her shallow breath cause the ice to melt near her nose and her mouth, thankfully, had closed, her lips perfectly fused together, a darker blue . . . like Sleeping Beauty he thought as he carefully poured another layer of water over her.
Ice crystals formed over her naked body, glazing the youthful flesh, sparkling in the dim lights of his cavern.
Humming along to Christmas music playing from his battery-operated docking station in this, his private chamber, he sculpted. Carefully. With precise attention to detail. Perfection; that what he was striving for. And he would get it.
He kept his sculpting room at thirty degrees, just below freezing and his breath fogged as he worked in his underground studio. Though a snowstorm was raging through this section of the Bitterroot Mountains, down here, deep in the caves, the air was calm, not a breath of the wind could be heard.
Wearing a neoprene suit, gloves, boots and ski mask, he silently wished he could strip bare, feel the bite of cold air against his flesh, feel more alive, but that would have to wait. He couldn’t be rash; couldn’t allow any bit of his skin or hair or even sweat to mar his work.
Besides, there was always that sticky problem of DNA, once the police became involved. Unfortunately that would be soon, he knew because this piece of art was nearly finished. A little more whittling here, a bit of shaving, there.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” he sang along under his breath as the music reverberated through these linked caves that he’d claimed for his work. Hidden deep in the Bitterroot Mountains, they provided a perfect spot for his work. A natural spring provided the water he needed, and battery powered lights gave off a bluish glow. When he needed brighter light, he donned head lamps to illuminate the areas where he needed to work.
From deeper within his workspace he heard a pathetic mewl and he frowned. Why wouldn’t that woman just die, already? He’d given her enough sedatives to knock out an elephant and yet she lay on the precipice between consciousness and death, lingering. And moaning. He frowned, hit his chisel with his hammer and the blade slipped, slicing into through his glove and nicking his finger. “Damn!” Blood, his damned blood slid in a singular drop along the ice. Quickly, it froze and he rather than smear it, let it die, all the time irritated at the delay. Once it was solid, he cut around the rivulet, giving wide berth, and making certain that no hint of red disturbed his perfect piece of art.
He was sweating by the time he was finished excavating the blood. Carefully, telling himself to be patient, he began pouring clear water from the spring over that flaw in his masterpiece. Allowing the water to freeze, he waited impatiently, before pouring a little more, until there was no hint of a fissure, no blemish visible.
“Perfect,” he whispered, satisfied.
He stared down at his artwork, the naked woman encased in ice and he couldn’t help, but lean forward, bending close enough to lick one ice-encased nipple. His tongue tingled, the interior of his mouth so cold that a ripple of pure, icy pleasure worked its way through his bloodstream, starting out frigid, but, as his mind created scenarios where his body was rubbing up against her arctic flesh, he felt the tiniest niggle of excitement, the start of arousal.
He rolled his tongue over the ice, imagining the salty taste of her, the bud of her nipple hard in his mouth. He’d sink his teeth in, just a little, to mingle pleasure with pain. He let out a quiet moan as his fantasy emerged.
In his mind’s eye, he saw another beautiful woman, her hair falling freely behind her as she ran, laughing, her voice echoing through the wintry forest. Snow had drifted against the scaly trunks of the pines, ice collecting on the long needles.
He raced through thick powder, chasing after her, watching in arousal as she tossed off her clothing, piece by piece, dropping a blouse, a skirt, a scarf into nearby snow drifts. Finally her bra was discarded and she, only in panties, continued to run.
He was closing the distance and taking off his own clothes, kicking off his boots, but his cold fingers fumbled with the buttons of his shirt, and his jeans, they were difficult to pull off and toss aside, so he couldn’t catch her, had to race to catch up.
He thought of what he would do to her, how he would thrust into her, make her cold body turn molten and heat the snow that fell until it melted over her skin.
But in his hand was his knife. The one with the handle made from the antler of a four-point he’d killed three years earlier. He remembered felling the buck, with just an arrow . . .
He was closer now . . . his heart pounding, his fingers clenched over the hilt of the knife.
Only inches from her, a half a step behind when she turned, her lips turning blue, her eyes bright, her cheeks crimson with the frosty winter air. A playful smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. So perfect. Like an angel’s.
Then she saw the knife.
Her soft grin fell away. Shock, then horror registered on her beautiful features and she stumbled, nearly falling, throwing up more white powder as panic set in and she ran faster, not playfully, but spurred on by terror.
His nostrils flared. He sprang forward, giving chase.
Within a few strides he caught her, his free hand tangling in her mass of long hair and then . . .
All he could remember was the slash of warm blood spraying scarlet over an icy white snowdrift . . .
No! He snapped back to the here and now. He couldn’t let his mind stray from his work.
The ice was melting in his mouth. His erection was full and bulging, straining against the hot neoprene. Straightening, he felt a moment’s disgust for his weakness and forced his ever-willing cock to stand down.
What had gotten into him?
He gazed down at the naked woman and noticed the place where his mouth had melted the water and left too much of his DNA. Not smart, not smart at all. Certainly not something a person with a
near genius IQ would do.
Quickly, as if in working swiftly he could erase the damage he’d done, he started chiseling out that spot where his mouth, and saliva had touched and melted the ice.
The bitch in the back room let out another moan and his jaw tightened. She’d die soon enough and her perfect body would show no bruise or cut or anything that would hint at violence. Then, she, too, would be encased in ice, a perfect specimen, another work of art.
Glancing at his watch, he noted he still had enough time to finish for the day. His wife wasn’t expecting him for another hour. Plenty of time.
Carefully he pumped more water from the stream and poured it over his work in process. She wasn’t quite ready, he thought as he gazed into her wide open eyes.
But it wouldn’t be long.
Thankfully, the moans from the other cave had stilled and he could concentrate again, sluicing water over her while under his breath he muttered, “Let it snow, let it snow, . . .”
“ . . . let it–” Click!
Selena Alvarez slapped the snooze button on the clock radio, then, thinking twice, turned the alarm off and rolled out of bed. God, she hated that song. Then again she wasn’t too big on anything to do with the Christmas season.
She had her reasons.
Not that she wanted to think about them now.
Though it was dark as midnight, the digital read-out glowed a bright red, telling her that it was four-thirty in the morning, her usual time to get up and get going. For most of the year, she tackled each day as if it were a challenge, but as autumn faded and the days of November bled into the heart of December, she felt that same old ennui that accompanied the holiday season, a definite energy sap that darkened her mood. Her usual take-the-world-head-on attitude hibernated for the winter and she had to work doubly hard to find her usual enthusiasm in life. “Idiot,” she muttered under her breath as she stretched her muscles.
She knew the cause of her change in attitude, of course; but she never discussed it; not even with her partner. Especially not her partner. Pescoli just wouldn’t understand.
And Alvarez definitely wasn’t going to think about it now.
Her new puppy, a mottled mix of some kind of shepherd and either a boxer or lab, roused in his crate, stretching and whining to be released while her cat, Jane Doe, who always slept on the second pillow of the bed, lifted her head and blinked.
Seeing that Alvarez was awake, the puppy made I-need-to-go-out-whines that turned into excited yips. All the enthusiasm she was lacking seemed to manifest itself in the half-grown dog. “Hey, you know better,” Alvarez admonished the pup before letting him out of his kennel. Immediately he began leaping and barking at her despite her best efforts of controlling him. “No, Roscoe! Off! Down!” He streaked into the living room of her townhouse, running in circles around the ottoman and coffee table before wiggling with excitement at the patio door.
Alvarez glanced at the cat who’d climbed onto a shelf over the desk and took in the scene with feline disdain. “Yeah, I know. Don’t rub it in.” Seconds later, she let the dog outside where he disappeared into the darkened corners of her small yard to, no doubt, lift his leg on every tree, bush and post he could find. It was still snowing, she noted as she closed the slider against a gust of winter air so cold it cut through her flannel pajamas. Through the glass, she saw that the pots she’d left on her patio were covered with five inches of icy white fluff, the lawn, before Roscoe tore into it, blanketed in a peaceful coat of white.
Yet she found no peace or serenity with the snow.
Adopting Roscoe had been a rash decision, especially on the heels of buying this townhouse, but, now it was a done deal and the stupid dog had burrowed a special little spot into her heart.
Despite his faults.
“Pathetic,” she told herself.
Bounding back to the slab of concrete that was her patio, he started clawing at the glass of the sliding door. She cracked it open and he tried to race inside, but she caught him by the collar. “Not on your life, guy.” Using the hand towel she hung on the door handle for just this purpose she wiped each of his huge paws before allowing him inside again.
Rarely did she go to the gym now; instead she ran with the dog, wearing him out before she showered, dressed for the day, and leaving him in the laundry area. It wasn’t an ideal set up, but as soon as she was convinced he was completely housebroken, she figured she’d install a doggy door and then could forgo hiring the neighbor woman to walk him at noon. She rarely stayed late at the station any longer, opting to bring her work home with her.
Which was probably a good thing.
But only reminded her that she was alone.
Not that she hadn’t dabbled in dating in the past year. A few had been interested in her, but she hadn’t returned the favor. She’d dated Kevin Miller, a pharmaceutical salesman who was a gym rat in his spare time and was always talking about his job. He’d bored her to tears. Terry Longstrom was a psychologist who worked with juveniles who’d been arrested and he’d taken her on a couple of dates, but for all of his good points, she just didn’t find him attractive and as shallow as that sounded, she couldn’t pretend to be interested in him. The worst of the lot though was Grover Pankretz who worked in the local DNA lab. A brilliant man, but a little too possessive from the get-go. He’d wanted to get serious by the second date. So she’d ended that before it really began.
And truthfully, she just wasn’t ready for a relationship . . . as evidenced by her ridiculous fantasy for an older, unavailable man like Dan Grayson, who just happened to be her boss. Typical.
“Face it,” she told herself, “you really don’t want a man in your life.”
She finished with her morning routine and drove to the sheriff’s office on Boxer Bluff. Traffic was snarled in the usual places and backed up where a single car had slid sideways just before the railroad tracks. All the while the snow kept falling and her wipers worked double time to slap the flakes away.
God, she hated this time of year.
It seemed that here, in Grizzly Falls, the Christmas season brought its own share of disaster with it. Despite the holiday wreaths on the door, the trees decorated and glowing festively in the windows, and the twenty-four seven deluge of Christmas carols from the local radio stations, trouble lurked in the shadows of all the radiant joy. Not only did domestic violence cases escalate during the holiday season, but, in the past few years, some homicidal maniacs had terrorized the locals.
Not exactly a season of peace and joy.
The road was slick in spots, but her ten-year-old Subaru, gripped the road and churned up the frozen, icy streets without any trouble. The Outback was another change in her life, though, of course she knew, that all the new cars and townhouses wouldn’t fill the hole inside her. The pets were a step in the right direction, she thought as she pulled into the parking lot of the station. She’d inherited the cat on a case last year as it’s owner had been the victim of a vicious murder and she’d felt a connection to the animal but the puppy had been an intentional, if irrational decision.
What had she been thinking?
Obviously not about pee on the carpet, chewed furniture or vet bills; nope, she’d seen something warm and cuddly, with bright eyes, a wet nose and a tail that wouldn’t stop wagging when she’d visited the shelter.
“Stupid,” she told herself as she wheeled into the parking lot, but she couldn’t help but smile. Damn it, she loved that dog and maybe, just maybe, Roscoe had been just what she needed. She only knew that no matter what, she wasn’t going to give him up.
Wheeling into the parking lot, she turned her thoughts to the weeks ahead. There was the Christmas party for the office, of course, and Joelle Fisher, the receptionist-cum-Christmas Elf, had already decorated the department and started talking about the Secret Santa exchanged that she always organized. Alvarez wasn’t interested; she just knew that she’d pile on a lot of extra hours over the holidays. That was her Christmas tradition; let the people with families stay home.
It was just easier.
She locked the car, then half jogged through the falling snow to the back door of the building. Stomping the melting white fluff from her boots, she paused in the lunch room, frowned when she saw the coffee hadn’t been made, and reluctantly started a pot. Then found her favorite cup, heated water in the microwave and located the last bag of orange pekoe.
A pink box lay open on the table, a few picked-over cookies visible, but she ignored them for now. At this time of year, with Joelle in charge, there was certain to be fresh goodies arriving on the hour.
Unwrapping her scarf, she made her way to her desk, deposited her purse and sidearm, hung her jacket on a hook and starting through her email and messages, making sure all the reports were filed on one case, getting ready for a deposition on another and seeing if the autopsy report had come in on Len Bradshaw, a local farmer who died in a hunting accident. His friend, Martin Zoeller had been with him and while going through a barbed wired fence, his weapon had gone off, shooting Len in the back and killing him dead.
Accident or pre-meditated?
Alvarez was buying the accident scenario. Martin had been distraught to the point of tears and beleaguered by Len’s friends and family. It all seemed to be an accident, but Alvarez wasn’t totally convinced, not until the investigation was buttoned up. There were three loose ends that kept her from totally buying Martin’s story.
First, the two men were poaching on private property, neither one with deer tags, and secondly, Martin and Len had been in a business together that had gone banko two years earlier, largely due to the fact that Len had “loaned” himself a good portion of the company profits. Also, another little tidbit that had come to light was that Len had once been involved with Martin’s ex-wife. Martin and Ezzie had been separated at the time, but still . . . It was all just a little too messy for Alvarez.
She checked her email.
No autopsy report yet.
Maybe later today. Flipping over to the Missing Persons
information, she checked to see if Lissa Parsons had been found. Lissa was an acquaintance, a woman Alvarez knew from a couple of classes she took at the gym. Twenty-six and single, with short black hair and a killer body, she worked as a receptionist for a local law firm and had been reported missing a week earlier. When the detectives started asking questions, they’d deduced that Lissa had actually been missing for over a week. Her boyfriend and she had been through a rough patch and he was “giving her some space” and her roommate had been out of town for a couple of weeks, an extended trip to Florida, only to come home to an empty an apartment where the organic produce in the refrigerator was beginning to rot. Lissa’s purse, cell phone, car and laptop were all missing with her, but her closet was untouched, her wardrobe neatly folded or hanging, a hamper in her bedroom filled with dirty work out clothes.
Both the roommate, boyfriend and an ex-boyfriend had rock solid alibis. No sign of forced entry or a struggle at the apartment. It was as if Lissa had just left for the day, intending to return and hadn’t bothered. Her cell phone and credit card activity showed no use after Black Friday.
Alvarez didn’t like it. Especially the fact that she’d been missing for nearly two weeks. Not good. Not good at all.
And, it seemed from the most updated information, that she was still missing.
No crime scene.
No damned crime.
All of the nearby hospitals had been checked and she hadn’t been admitted, nor had there been any Jane Does brought in. Nor, of course, had Lissa, been arrested by any local agency.
Just . . . gone.
“Where the hell are you?” Alvarez wondered aloud as she sipped her tepid tea. She didn’t expect to see her partner for another hour or so, but Pescoli showed up before her usual time with a cup of coffee from one of the local shops in hand, snow melting in her burnished hair, her face flushed.
“What’re you doing here at this time?” Alvarez asked, spinning her chair around as her partner stood in the doorway. “Somebody die?”
“Bad joke this early in the morning.” She took a sip from her cup. “I had to drop Bianca off at school early for dance practice.” Bianca was Pescoli’s teenage daughter; a junior now and as headstrong as she was beautiful. A dangerous combination and it didn’t help that the girl was smart enough to play each of her divorced parents against the other. It worked every time. Though Pescoli and her ex had been divorced for years, there was still a lot of animosity between them, especially when it came to their kids. Bianca and her older brother, Jeremy, an off-again college student who lived with Pescoli in between his attempts at “moving out” worked them both.
“I thought the dance team practiced after school.”
“Limited gym space.” Pescoli glanced to the window. “Basketball, wrestling, cheerleading, dance team . . . whatever, they all juggle times though, right now, basket-ball has priority, I think. So for the next two weeks, Bianca has to be at school at six forty-five, that means she’s got to get up around six and believe me it’s killing her.” Pescoli’s lips twisted into a thin smile at thought of her teenager struggling with the early morning routine. “And this is just day one. It’s damned hard to be a princess when you have to be up and at ‘em in the friggin’ dark. What did she call it? Oh, yeah, ‘the middle of the night when no one with any brains would get out of bed.’” Pescoli was shaking her head. “I’m tellin’ ya, we’re raising a generation of vampires!”
“Vampires are in.”
“Go figure.” She turned serious, pointed a finger toward the computer screen on Alvarez’s desk where a picture of Lissa Parsons was visible. “The autopsy report come in on Bradshaw?”
Little lines grooved deep between Pescoli’s eyebrows. “You know I’d really like to believe Zoeller; that it was an accident, but, I just can’t.”
“Something just doesn’t quite fit. What about the Parsons missing persons case?” Pescoli asked.
“Hell.” Pescoli took a sip from her coffee. “Hard to say what’s going on there,” she thought aloud. “Just a flighty girl who got a wild hare and took off for a while, or something else?” Obviously not liking that idea, she frowned even deeper. “Still nothing on her car?”
“Don’t think so. I was going to walk down to Missing Persons and talk to Taj, see what she as to say.”
“Let me know.” Pescoli patted the door way and started to leave when the familiar click, click, click of high heels caught her attention.
“Toot, toot! Coming through!” Joelle warned in her little girl voice as Alvarez caught a glimpse of the tiny receptionist, her beehive of platinum hair sprayed with red and green glitter, her snowman earrings catching in the florescent light as she hauled several stacked plastic tubs toward the lunchroom.
“Breakfast,” Pescoli said. “Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
Together they followed the bustling dynamo who never seemed happy until every square inch of the station was decorated for the holidays. Paper snowflakes, sprayed with silver glitter hung from the ceiling, garlands of fake greenery swagged through the hallways, a revolving Christmas tree was twirling in the reception area and even the copy machine had a red pseudo velvet bow with a spring of mistletoe was taped to the wall behind it. Like sure–-someone would try to steal a kiss while taking copies of arrest reports. Nothing more romantic than a smooch over the hum and click of office machinery, Alvarez thought cynically.
“Here we go!” Joelle dropped the plastic tubs onto one round table and only pausing to unwrap a plaid scarf of green and red before opening the first tub. “Voila!”
Inside were cupcakes, stacked neatly, each decorated with Santa faces or snowmen faces or even reindeer faces. “I picked these up at the bakery,” she announced as if it were a sin, “but I did bake my famous Christmas macaroons and Russian tea cakes.” Another bin was opened, to display the cookies. “And the Piece de Resistance,” she teased, while opening the third bin, “Grandma Maxie’s divinity and fudge! Mmmmm.” She hurried to the cupboard where she’d stashed several trays earlier in the week, and satisfied that they were still sparking clean, started arranging her favorite delicacies.
“I’m getting sugar high just looking at these,” Pescoli said.
Pleased, Joelle let out a little-girl giggle. Though she was over sixty, she looked a good ten years younger than her age and her energy seemed boundless–at least at this time of the year. “Well, help yourselves!” Once the platters were perfect, she scooped up the bins and hurried down the hallway to her desk at the front of the station house. “And remember, the drawing for the Secret Santa, is at four!” she called over her shoulder. “Detective Pescoli, I expect you to participate!”
Pescoli had already bitten into a cookie and almost moaned in ecstacy. Under her breath she said to Alvarez, “the woman drives me nuts with all this holiday stuff, but I gotta say, she does bake a mean macaroon!”