His pretty hands tied a thin nylon rope around her wrists. As her hands came together, he gave an extra pull, knowing it would hurt. Tara Samuels refused to give him the satisfaction of a whimper, but her breath caught in her throat just the same.
Her assailant immediately looked at her face, searching for the fright he heard in her gasp. Amused by her struggle to keep composed, he purposefully pulled and twisted the rope and then shoved her down on the filthy green carpeting that smelled like a nest of insects.
“You’re gonna yell for it, you worthless whore. I know you live for this…” He dropped to his knees and leaned over her, his hungry eyes roving over her body. He caught her staring at him. “What are you looking at? You know not to look at me.”
Tara watched his hand rise to strike her and she braced for the blow, when an ugly gurgling sound cut through the room. His hand froze in the air, and they both turned toward the sound. The dead girl’s eyes were staring. She was naked and facing them from about three feet away. A drowning, ominous click-click-click issued from her open mouth. The wet rattling of her final exhalation filled the loft and then there was silence.
Tara’s eyes slid to the side of the loft. No railing lined the edge. The drop wasn’t too far. Tara’s hands fervently worked to loosen her bonds as she slowly inched her body across the worn carpeting.
“Even when she’s dead,” her tormenter stated as he amused himself with the dead girl. “She can’t shut up.”
Tara felt the rope slide gracefully from her wrists and without a second thought, she launched herself over the edge of the loft.
Somewhere beyond the storm of her own desperation she heard him yell, robbed of his moment. She hit the carpeted floor on her right hip and felt her insides jostle. Ignoring the pain, Tara lurched toward the front door, threw it open, and ran for the tall chaparral outside.
A light rain blurred her eyes, making the green mountains beyond her an impressionistic watercolor. He was right behind her—she could hear him thrashing furiously through the underbrush.
Tara slashed through the sumac and deer weed, using her bare arms as machetes. Pushing blindly ahead, she suddenly smashed face-first into a chain-link fence. Tara’s grappling fingers led her along the rusted links to the end post. She swung wildly around it and then tumbled out onto wet asphalt.
A passing motorcyclist saw what appeared to be Botticelli’s Venus, blond hair, naked, standing frozen and wild-eyed. The helmeted man instantly swerved on the wet pavement and his bike spun out from under him.
“Lady, are you all right?”
Tara opened her eyes. Standing above her was the motorcyclist, surveying her with wide eyes. The next thing Tara knew, a leather jacket was being draped over her bare shoulders.
The motorcyclist fumbled for his cell phone. “I’ll get help,” he assured her, nodding. Tara’s face hurt, and when she touched her lips, she saw blood on her fingertips. She warily looked over her shoulder. Nothing moved in the hills but the falling rain.
Detective Gabriel McRay pulled into the driveway of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, struggling with his bowtie. Tuxes were never his style; they looked better on playboys. At least his body was fit due to regular gym workouts, but his efforts didn’t show under the flabby folds of his cheap rental suit.
He tried reminding himself that all that glittered wasn’t gold as he walked through the hotel, passing the bar festooned with celebrities. Gabriel ran his hands self-consciously over the lapel of his tuxedo, breathing in the scent of expensive cologne, freshly polished marble, and the large flower arrangement centered in the lobby. The reservation clerk, looking like a runway model, offered him a disapproving glance. Even the bellboys pursed their lips. Los Angeles could make anybody feel like a nobody.
If he had come to this place to investigate a murder or to interview a witness, Gabriel would have been in his element. Faced with having to impress his girlfriend’s fancy colleagues today made him feel as awkward as a teenager, and his rented penguin suit wasn’t helping matters.
Gabriel walked toward the ballroom and saw a sign that read: “Southern California Pathology Convention.”
Gabriel groaned inwardly and his discomfort must have made him look completely out of place for an Armani suit immediately detached itself from the nearest table and strode toward him.
“This is a private function,” the man in Armani said. His light brown, blow-dried hair leaned to the right. “You may want to double-check the sign outside for your party.”
A flame of fire licked Gabriel’s insides: the old rage. Keep it at bay, Gabriel warned himself.
“This is my party.”
Gabriel purposely brushed the man aside, satisfied to see the Armani stumble backwards. It was his insecurity, of course, that was riling up the anger. Armani quickly sought the aid of a few cohorts and they approached Gabriel, who shook his head and turned, ready for a skirmish.
“That’s okay, Jim. He’s with me.”
Gabriel heard the familiar wind-chime voice and watched the Armani gang raise their eyebrows in surprise. They backed off. Gabriel turned around to see Dr. Ming Li standing behind him. The thick black hair inherited from her Mexican mother was pulled up into a sweeping twist. Her rose sheath dress hugged her slim, curvy figure, giving her a conservative, yet sexy look. But the almond-shaped orbs Ming inherited from her Chinese father were full of cold anger.
“You’re late,” she stated bluntly.
“There was an accident on the freeway—the rain.”
“You should have left enough time!” Ming caught herself, glancing around at the onlookers who were observing their scuffle. Ming sidled closer to Gabriel and whispered, “This is important to me.”
Gabriel tried to keep his voice low. “You think I like sitting on the freeway with my thumb up my ass?”
“I don’t know what you like.”
Feeling a dozen pairs of eyes on him, Gabriel wanted to end this argument now. “I said Iwas sorry.”
“No, you didn’t. Well, at least you’re here now.” She took a controlled breath and then surveyed Gabriel with a wry smile. “Nice tux.”
Grateful to see a glimpse of her humor, he leaned close to Ming. “I’m a lot more attractive out of it.”
“Yes, you are.”
Gabriel inhaled the spice of her perfume, envisioning the smooth skin hiding under the silk. He slid an arm around her waist and felt her soften under his touch.
“I’m sorry I missed your speech,” he said, truly apologetic now. “Tell you what; you finish lunch, I’ll book a room.”
“I’ve already taken care of that. Come,” Ming said, and took Gabriel’s arm to lead him through the round-table obstacle course.
Ming was the chief Los Angeles County medical examiner whose word was solid in court, and Gabriel had always enjoyed working with her. Last summer, when the two of them worked side-by-side on the Malibu Canyon Murder case, their professional relationship had turned personal. Ming’s self-assuredness never bothered Gabriel, although most men found it annoying. What did annoy Gabriel was the fact that Ming had already bought and paid for their hotel room. He’d wanted that to be his move.
“Right here,” Ming said, halting at a table with a tall centerpiece: a single rare orchid amid a twig concoction that probably cost a fortune and looked like a dry weed. Enough crystal and china lay on the table to blind Gabriel. He went to pull the chair out for Ming, but she was already taking her seat. Standing like a fool, feeling like an idiot, Gabriel sat down.
“Everybody, I’d like to introduce, Detective Sergeant Gabriel McRay.”
Gabriel nodded and extended his hand to four other couples seated at the table.
“Ron Wasserstein,” a trim gentleman in his late forties told him. “And this is my wife Claire.” Wasserstein had graying temples and charcoal-colored hair. His gray-and-black pinstriped suit matched him perfectly. His wife might have been beautiful once, but plastic surgery had given her face a perpetually surprised expression.
Another man, identifying himself as Dr. Darren Darnell, was diving into the breadbasket, even as his stomach blocked his access to the table. His wife, whom no one bothered introducing, was downing martinis.
Ming introduced Gabriel to the four other people seated at their table, only he instantly forgot their names. It was okay because three of them never paused in their discourse about the calcification on rotator cuffs. The other doctor, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Frankenstein monster, nodded ever so slightly at Gabriel and then stared morosely at the silver fork in his hand.
Gabriel whispered to Ming, “Maybe the bolts in his neck need tightening.”
She elbowed him. “Mathias is a pioneer on heart transplants.”
“I don’t doubt he knows all about transplants.” Gabriel suppressed a chuckle as he took his seat. “That, and the reanimation of dead tissue.”
Ming shushed him.
“So,” Ron Wasserstein said, addressing Gabriel. “Detective McRay, huh?”
“That’s right.” A waiter placed a green salad in front of Gabriel: two long pieces of lettuce accompanied by grape tomatoes and a goat cheese crostini. Gabriel knew food. Gourmet cooking was his hobby. Still, two measly pieces of lettuce weren’t going to suffice for the appetite he’d worked up in traffic. Gabriel reached for the breadbasket and played tug-of-war with the pudgy doctor.
“Any interesting cases?” Wasserstein addressed Gabriel.
Gabriel felt the fingers of discomfort creep over his ill-fitting clothes. Still, he shrugged as if he were important.
“I was the lead investigator on the Malibu Canyon Murder case.”
Okay, Gabriel confessed silently, I’m bragging. Sometimes it’s hard not to get sucked in, especially when you’re wearing a cheap rented tux among a sea of designer threads.
“I think I remember your name,” Wasserstein said.
“Maybe,” Gabriel murmured in reply, cutting his salad leaf with his knife. “It did make the papers occasionally.”
Cut it out. Gabriel stuffed a salad leaf in his mouth to keep from talking. You sure did make the papers and most of it was nothing to brag about.
The pudgy doctor, Dr. Darnell, miffed about losing the breadbasket to Gabriel, said evenly, “I heard the killer is going to go free.”
Gabriel reached for the pad of butter. “No, he’s awaiting trial.”
Darnell squinted in memory. “I know who you are. You’re that cop who was fired for punching an old lady. They hired you back to work the Malibu Canyon case because you were friends with the killer.”
The conversation seemed to die then and all of them turned their attention to Gabriel. Ming’s naturally mocha-colored skin went a shade paler.
“What was his name again?” Darnell asked the now silent table. “Hector something?”
“Victor Archwood,” Gabriel told Darnell and then glanced at Ming. “He wasn’t my friend. He was someone from my past.”
Ming took a shaky sip of water and looked as if she might choke. Wasserstein, noticing the change in his normally confident colleague, laughed to break the ice.
“Don’t mind Darren,” he told Gabriel. “He thinks all cops plant evidence.”
Gabriel frowned and concentrated on buttering his bread roll.
Darnell smirked as he chewed his food. “Would it be surprising with the LAPD? Would it now, ha?”
Gabriel put down the bread. “I’m with the Sheriff’s Department, not LAPD.”
Darnell gave Gabriel a sullen what’s-the-difference shrug.
“The Sheriff’s Department handles all the contract cities of Los Angeles County,” Gabriel explained. “LAPD handles the city of Los Angeles.”
Dr. Darnell stared blankly at Gabriel for a moment and then turned to the Frankenstein doctor. “Hey Mathias, did you catch Cameron Diaz in the lobby?”
Gabriel sat back and wondered if his temper would make it through lunch.
Jonelle Williams carried a sealed rape kit in one hand and her camera in the other as she walked through the Tarzana Medical Center. Her polyester, navy blue skirt hugged her wide hips tightly and the matching blazer’s one fastened button was coming loose with every step. She nodded a greeting to the orderlies she vaguely remembered and kept her maroon lips closed tight. Jonelle Williams was with the Sheriff’s Department’s Sex Crimes Division and her business here today was nobody else’s.
She headed to a private room at the very back of the emergency ward, bypassing a crying child. Hating the antiseptic smell of hospitals, especially on Sundays, Jonelle entered the room and found an Iranian doctor and a nurse conferring quietly in one corner. The doctor nodded to Jonelle.
“Detective Williams?” he asked in a thick Farsi accent.
“Yes,” Jonelle said, extending her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
The doctor limply shook her hand and dropped it. “Dr. Farad.” He seemed to zone in on the gold bicuspid cap Jonelle proudly wore. “The patient, she is in there.”
He motioned to the closed beige curtain. “She’s told us nothing about what happened to her. We can only assume from the fact that she was found without clothes…”
“I understand.” Jonelle set her camera down on an orange vinyl chair and then broke the seal on the rape kit. “We’ll try to get through this quickly. What’s her name?”
“Tara Samuels,” the nurse offered. “She did say that.”
“Have you called her relatives?”
“Her husband. He is on his way,” said Dr. Farad.
The nurse, a gangly woman whose white skin looked pasty under her dyed black hair, said to Jonelle in a low voice, “I don’t think you’re going to get much from her.”
Jonelle eyed the nurse confidently as she opened the curtain. The woman sitting on the bed wore a hospital gown over her wraithlike body. Shagged gold hair fell about her face in perky little wisps. The blond woman looked up at Jonelle. Her eyes, the color of light sapphires, were vacant.
“Mrs. Samuels? I’m Detective Jonelle Williams with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sex Crimes Division. I’m going to ask you some very personal questions and I hope that—”
“He’s going to kill me.”
Jonelle looked at Tara for a moment and nodded. “The perpetrator? He threatened you after the attack?”
Tara stared at Jonelle and then looked down. “I’m so stupid.”
“No, you’re not. You’re safe is what you are.” Jonelle set the rape kit on the bed. “I’m going to take some pictures and collect evidence. Can I ask you, Ms. Samuels, did the perpetrator penetrate you orally?”
Tara Samuels did not reply.
“Was it a vaginal penetration then? Where exactly did he touch you?” Jonelle received no answer. “You see, if there was no oral penetration, I don’t have to take a sample from your mouth. Ms. Samuels?”
Tara studied the linoleum, seeming to count the pattern repeats.
“Ms. Samuels, do you know who your attacker was? Could you identify him?”
Jonelle exhaled loudly and exchanged looks with Dr. Farad, who shrugged. One day I won’t be working these assault cases. Jonelle had a hankering to join the homicide bureau.
The nurse attempted to help Tara out of the hospital gown, but Tara resisted. “I’ve got to go now.”
Jonelle glanced at her watch, a Gucci knockoff. The husband could have been some support. Where was he?
Tara’s shoulders dropped and she reluctantly let the nurse undress her. Dr. Farad drew the curtain closed behind him. Jonelle removed the camera from its case.
“Ms. Samuels, I’m gonna take some photographs of you. May I begin?”
Tara nodded once and kept her eyes glued on the floor.
“Can you look up at me, please, so we can record any facial discolorations?”
Eyes the color of aquamarine ice met Jonelle’s and for a moment, the detective’s heart quaked in empathy. “May I ask how you got that cut on your lip?”
“I ran into a fence.”
Jonelle made notes. No other contusions marked Tara’s face. Dr. Farad approached Tara. “Can you uncross your arms please so that I can see your chest area?”
Tara uncrossed her arms shyly. Dr. Farad inspected Tara’s breasts. Jonelle could not see any particular bruises on the victim’s breasts—usually the battleground for sexual assaults.
“Here,” Dr. Farad said, gently turning Tara’s limp wrist.
As Tara stared into space, Jonelle zoomed in on bracelets of ligature scrapes along both wrists. The shutter snapped in quick succession.
“Here,” Dr. Farad said again, turning Tara around and Jonelle swallowed. A large blue- and-yellow bruise was blooming on Tara’s right hip. Jonelle quickly shot photos from every angle.
“Can you tell me what caused that bruise?”
The curtain was suddenly torn aside and Jonelle jerked her head toward the intruder. A man, billboard handsome, stood under the blinking fluorescents, holding a bundle of clothes.
Jonelle surmised from his anxious expression that this must be the husband.
“Mr. Samuels?” Dr. Farad asked.
The man didn’t respond, staring only at his wife, and then he appeared to collect himself.
Jonelle felt a prickling silence invade the room and glanced at Tara, who simply looked terrified.
“Marc, I’m so sorry!” Tara cried.
Marc shook his head, his features pained. He quickly went to his wife’s side and put his arms around her. “Shhh, don’t talk, baby. Everything is okay now.”
Tall and brown-haired, Marc wore a solid gold Rolex President wristwatch with a diamond bezel that Jonelle just bet was real. The rest of his attire smacked of money and adorned a physique only a private trainer could create. Jonelle cleared her throat. No more waiting. Tara’s body was surely breaking down the components found in seminal fluid.
“I know this is very upsetting, Mr. Samuels,” Jonelle said in a polite but determined voice. “However, we must continue the examination to help catch your wife’s assailant.”
Marc Samuels slowly released his wife and stood up, turning his broad shoulders toward Jonelle. “Okay, now what?”
Not used to capturing the attention of male model types, Jonelle eagerly showed off her expertise. She pointed to the rape kit. “Each of these envelopes contains items central to collecting evidence—evidence that will be used for a conviction in court.”
Jonelle opened the first envelope, which contained a paper towel and a comb. She glanced at Marc to see if he was watching. He was.
Dr. Farad tucked the paper towel under Tara’s derriere and then methodically ran the comb through her pubic hairs. Jonelle watched the couple’s eyes lock worriedly.
The towel and combings were returned to the envelope, sealed by Jonelle, initialed, and dated.
Tara Samuels stared into space as Dr. Farad took up another envelope and began scraping material from underneath her fingernails.
Twelve hairs were cut from Tara’s head and put into another envelope, which was also sealed, initialed and dated by Jonelle.
“Can you please lie back,” Dr. Farad said to Tara. “Yes, please. Lay back. Can you—” He gently pried at Tara’s legs, but she crossed them tightly like a little child. Dr. Farad tried to gently coax her but she squirmed away.
“Tara,” Marc said, biting his lower lip. “Lean back.”
Jonelle threw Marc a sharp glance, but Tara reached out for her husband, who immediately took her hand.
“Where’s she going with that?” Marc asked.
“To analyze it for mobile sperm,” Jonelle answered. “If we find semen, we’ll run DNA on it.”
Anxiety twisted Marc’s beautifully sculpted features and Jonelle was certain the realization had finally hit him: a rapist could have impregnated his pretty wife.
One by one the envelopes were filled with samples. When Tara was finally allowed to shower in peace, Marc Samuels approached Jonelle as she collected the envelopes.
“Will you be able to find her attacker?”
“I’m afraid Mrs. Samuels wasn’t able to furnish us with much information. Maybe you can get her to talk to you. Meanwhile, there were no apparent traces of seminal fluid, but we’ll run the swab through the lab and see what comes up.”
“And if you get his DNA…?”
“If I can get a genetic profile of the assailant, the first thing I’ll do is run it through CODIS. That’s the Combined DNA Index System, which is a data bank of DNA profiles of sex offenders. It’s a start.”
“She was bound at the wrists at one point and she has a good-size bruise on her hip. It doesn’t appear that Mrs. Samuels was beaten on any other part of her body.”
Marc stared at Jonelle, his dimpled chin jutting toward her like a weapon. “But you can’t identify him?”
“It simply doesn’t happen that fast, sir.” Jonelle surveyed Marc Samuels with a mixture of envy and sympathy. Here was a man, Jonelle presumed, who was obviously used to getting his own way, right away.
“Your wife needs you to be strong,” Jonelle told him and reached into her purse. “Here is my card. I will be in touch as I’m the detective on this case. You will be contacted by a state social worker, a rape counselor. I highly advise that you meet with her.”
Tara Samuels timidly exited the bathroom, dressed in a pink Juicy Couture jogging suit brought by her husband.
“You can go home now, Ms. Samuels.” Jonelle snapped shut her evidence collection kit and replaced the camera in its case.
Tara allowed Marc to help her into a jacket and said in a small voice, “She wanted to go home, too.”
Jonelle slowly approached the couple, aware her loafers were making clicking sounds in the quiet room. “There was another female with you, Ms. Samuels? Where?”
Tara focused on her and Jonelle suddenly felt frightened under the strange blue headlights. “In the house. Only she can’t go home because she’s not moving.”
“Oh, good Lord,” Jonelle said. She flipped open her cell phone and dialed the Sheriff’s Department operator to dispatch a search and rescue.
The green helicopter sent by the Aero Bureau of the Sheriff’s Department hovered low over the stretching oak trees, kicking up a tornado of sharp brown leaves and new green grass. The rain, having abated somewhat, allowed the officers better visibility to search for suspects, vehicles, tire tracks, and even more importantly, bodies.
The Wagon Wheel Ranch was a sixteen-acre abandoned movie set at the end of a quarter- mile dirt road. From above, the deputies spied a house, corrals, stables, and an empty pool. They touched down in the middle of a large riding ring bordered by broken wood fencing. Deputy Donald Hart radioed their position to the Malibu substation.
Deputy Tony Velasquez killed the engine and exited the helicopter along with Hart. The two men surveyed the lonely mist-laden ranch.
“Where do you want to start?” Hart asked.
A coyote bayed from a surrounding hill. The two men looked toward the sound, seeing nothing but wet chaparral.
“Didn’t the victim say where the other girl was?” Hart did not like coyotes.
“They got nothing out of her,” Velasquez said, eyeing the howling hill. “Some guy on a motorcycle said she came running out of the drive.”
Hart shook his head and lifted his parka hood against the wetness. “Sixteen acres, huh? We might as well start there.” He nodded to the barn before them. The dilapidated doors hung open in a forlorn welcome.
Finding the barn empty, the two deputies trudged through soft mud toward the ranch house. True to its name, an ancient wagon wheel rested against the home’s stone exterior.
Hart pushed open a whitewashed front door, which gave with no hesitation. The inside smelled surprisingly fresh, the reason apparent when the two men looked up and saw a huge hole in the roof through which a light rain sprinkled. An elaborate stone fireplace loomed to the right, its firebox empty save for a rustling wind.
Hearing his name, Velasquez exited the kitchen and joined Hart who stood in the living room. He followed Hart’s gaze. A ladder rose up to a loft. Next to the ladder was a closed, narrow door.
Tony Velasquez nudged his partner and they pulled their guns, approaching the door. “Anybody in there?” Hart called.
A whispery silence answered him. Velasquez quietly counted off and Donald Hart took the cover position. Velasquez kicked in the door, which immediately hit the wall with a loud crack.
The two deputies exchanged glances. They stood before a tiny bathroom. The ceramic tub was religiously chipped and brown with age. A spider scuttled from the drain when they inspected it. The sink held nothing but a drain surrounded by a corona of ancient rust. For show, Hart turned the squeaking faucet and a groan was heard in the bowels of the house.
Shrugging, Hart turned to his partner. “Well, looks like we’ve got sixteen acres to search. Think we need help?”
“I would say so,” Velasquez said and then narrowed his eyes as a drop of red magically appeared on Hart’s hood. He was about to inquire whether his partner was hurt when another drop suddenly fell with a soft plop. Velasquez jerked his head upwards and saw a bloodstain pooling on the yellowed popcorn ceiling. Hart followed his gaze and was met with another droplet, this one catching the bridge of his nose.
Dr. Ming Li stood at the window of her hotel room and watched the mist come in from the ocean and creep over the city. Behind her, Gabriel kissed her neck and gently pulled down the zipper of her dress. He laid her shoulders bare and kissed the soft skin of her back. Ming shivered beneath his lips. The dress fell to her feet, and Gabriel’s hands traced the outline of her figure. He pressed himself close to her as his breath deepened and his hands meandered to the front of her body.
“Why were you late?” Ming asked. Gabriel paused. “You want to start this now?” “I want to know what you found more important than me. I specifically asked you to support me today and you were late. And I don’t buy your traffic excuse. You could have made it from your place to here in no time.”
Gabriel sighed into her neck. “I wasn’t coming from Santa Monica. I was coming from Dr. B’s.”
Dr. Raymond Berkowitz had been working with Gabriel since he’d been ordered into therapy for police brutality. Although Gabriel’s sessions were no longer mandatory, Gabriel continued to seek therapy to help him deal with the fact he’d been molested as a child. Both Dr. B and the Malibu Canyon Murder case had brought that sad fact to light last summer. For most of his life, Gabriel had blocked out the memory of his rape.
Ming turned to face him. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I wasn’t going to announce it, especially with those people listening.”
“What do you mean ‘those people’?”
Gabriel let his hands drop.
“I’m one of those people,” Ming said more emphatically.
Gabriel shook his head, feeling his arousal tight in his pants. He sighed again and sat on the bed, thinking that if only Ming could keep her mouth shut the two of them could be between the sheets right now.
“Are you intimidated by my professional friends, Gabriel?” Standing in her satiny bra and panties, Ming put her hands on her hips and stared him down. “Is that the real reason you were late?”
He gave her an exasperated look as his cell phone began to ring. He reached for it. “McRay,” he answered hollowly.
A voice on the line said, “I need you, Hiker Joe.”
Gabriel recognized the Chicano accent of his Team Lieutenant, Miguel Ramirez, and figured that something had happened in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“A dead girl off Topanga Canyon. I know you’re not on duty right now, but—”
“No problem,” Gabriel said, eager to escape Ming’s interrogation. “I’m on my way.”
“I’m not interrupting one of your ‘sessions,’ am I?” Ramirez always had to stick one in.
“No,” Gabriel answered and kept a wary eye on Ming, “but I’ll have to call you back.” He ended the call.
Once upon a time, Gabriel and Ramirez used to be at each other’s throats, but the two had forged a grudging respect for one another. While they still butted heads, they did so with less-than-sharp horns.
“I’ve got to go,” he told Ming as he pulled on his tuxedo jacket. “I’ve been assigned a new case.”
Ming’s high cheekbones burned scarlet, but she said nothing. Gabriel gave her a peck on the cheek, and wondered why all their conversations ended in arguments lately. Feeling powerless to stop the pattern, Gabriel left the hotel room with nothing to look forward to except a murder.
The low clouds spread fingers of white mist between the green, tree-studded hills. Gabriel drove along the bumpy, mud-churned drive of Wagon Wheel Road. He passed a shed that might have once served as a gatehouse and a rusted Volkswagen bug that peeked like an animal through the thistle that had overgrown it. The Celica’s tires skidded, and Gabriel commanded himself to slow down.
The road ended in a circular valley surrounded by hills, with stables on one side and a farmhouse on the other. The farmhouse would have been charming were it not hiding the body of a dead person.
Two flashing black and white units were there; the officers just finished taping off the perimeter. A coroner’s wagon, fire truck, and an ambulance were parked outside the farmhouse, along with a Mobile Crime Scene Unit van. The bad visibility brought on by the low clouds caused a helicopter to idle uselessly in the dead center of a decrepit riding ring.
As Gabriel removed his evidence case from the Celica’s trunk, he saw his partner approaching. Michael Starkweather was nicknamed “Dash” for the bottle of salt-free seasoning he always carried with him. Dash was reed-thin, with bulging brown eyes, peach-colored skin, and a prominent Adam’s apple.
“Hey.” Dash smiled and the Adam’s apple bobbed in amusement. “You didn’t have to dress up on my account.”
Gabriel looked down at his tuxedo, now getting ruined in the moist air. “You’re a real joker. I just came from a luncheon.”
“Yeah, Doctors Plagued with Big Egos.” Gabriel looked heavenward, reminded again of the grief he would get later from Ming. Dash didn’t press the subject.
“What have we got?” Gabriel asked him.
“A woman was sexually assaulted here. She was seen running from this road out onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard. She mentioned there being another female involved.” Dash looked back to the house. “The guys from Aero found a woman’s body in an upstairs loft about two hours ago.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
As lead investigator, Gabriel assumed control, ensuring the safety of personnel and security at the scene. Gabriel began his preliminary walk-through. The partners entered the house and heard the murmur of voices coming from an upstairs loft. A ladder was nailed to the wall next to a bathroom door. Hooking his hands on each side of the rails, Gabriel hoisted himself upwards and found himself staring into the blue face of a young woman.
Her eyes, dotted with burst blood vessels, bulged unnaturally from their sockets. Her tongue protruded from her mouth like a purple flag. Gabriel looked up and saw a CSI officer, Jonelle Williams from Sex Crimes, and a coroner standing over the body.
“Hello,” Gabriel said to them genially as he carefully climbed over the corpse.
“Greetings,” replied the coroner. “Upon preliminary inspection, I’d say strangulation was the cause of death. Garroted. She’s been dead about ten hours.”
Gabriel snapped on latex gloves, pulled his camera from the evidence case, and looked where the coroner gently lifted the folds of jet-black hair. At first Gabriel could not see the weapon used to choke the woman since her neck was so encrusted with drying blood; then the coroner displayed two ends of a wire protruding from the back of the head. With gloved fingers, Gabriel inspected the wound and his stomach did a somersault.
“She’s nearly decapitated.”
“The murder weapon appears to be common baling wire,” the coroner told him.
Gabriel backed away, swallowing. Most killers this furious would make use of something convenient, and Gabriel thought of the barn outside.
“Dash,” he called to his partner below. “Conduct a thorough search of those stables. Collect any remnants of baling wire.” Gabriel caught sight of Tony Velasquez loitering near the whistling stone fireplace. “Tell me you didn’t touch anything in the stables.”
Velasquez held his hands up defensively. “Not me, man. We did a walk-through though.” A rumbling of thunder rolled over them.
“Shit,” muttered the CSI officer. “Better get started right away. This whole place could get soaked in a New York minute.”
The CSI unit dusted for fingerprints and Gabriel began photographing the victim in situ. She wore white lace panties. The band over the right hip was twisted, as if the panties had been yanked up her body. Ligature marks encircled her wrists, but nothing bound them now. A pair of boots stood neatly on the other side of the loft next to a folded pair of jeans, a black biker’s jacket, and a polka-dotted retro shirt. Another pair of jeans, with thong panties still visible inside, and a white ruffled blouse lay crumpled nearby.
After Gabriel photographed their position, he picked up the white ruffled blouse with his gloved hand.
“Okay,” Gabriel nodded. “The other clothes must belong to the dead girl.”
He rifled through them, searching for a wallet or ID and found none. The living girl who had pulled on her boots that morning was now unknown, a Jane Doe. Gabriel let his eyes roam the loft.
The loft’s green shag carpeting was strewn with empty tin cans, faded fast food wrappers, and broken glass. Garbage left by junkies and vagrants. Gabriel spied a syringe and ordered all garbage collected, including fiber samples from the carpet.
He photographed the crime scene from all angles, including the eye-level encounter he’d first had with the dead girl, and began his written narrative of the crime scene by pulling out a spiral notepad and a pencil.
“I’m gonna need to talk to our witness, Jonelle,” he said, noting how the Sex Crimes investigator had stayed around much longer than she needed to.
“You can’t do that yet, Gabe. She’s a victim herself.”
“She’s not dead like her friend. What time can you have her in my office tomorrow?”
Jonelle, haughty behind her dark brown eyes, replied, “She’s not going to your office. You go to her.”
Ten hours of rain had washed any tire tracks from the mud and Gabriel was left with countless questions. Did the two victims walk the long road to the house or were they driven? Was the assailant with them or did they encounter him at the ranch? Only the rape victim could provide these answers and Gabriel planned on quizzing her tomorrow.
The following day, Gabriel headed to the guard-gated community of Hidden Springs.
He thought of Ming’s invulnerable beauty as he drove along a comfortable road bordered by white corral fencing and pastoral trails. Out his window, Gabriel viewed mansions of varying designs. Ming also had a big house. She had all the trappings of success. She’d been right, of course, when she accused him of being intimidated by her fellow professionals. Sometimes Gabriel wondered if Ming categorized him as an emotionally dented, uncouth cop. Refusing to delve further into his aching pride, Gabriel concentrated instead on his case.
He drove up the Samuels’ long driveway that wound around a wide lawn flush with valley oaks. He parked near a koi pond with a waterfall in the center and looked mutely at a sprawling ranch house. Gabriel exited his car, walked up a brick path lined with potted flowers of Evening Primrose, and rang a doorbell that chimed “Silent Night.”
The clouds above him were bilious and bright white. Gabriel studied them and could make out the shapes of a caboose, a poodle, and—
His eyebrows furrowed. In the vaporous forms, Gabriel saw the face of Andrew Pierce, a neighbor from his childhood. Andrew Pierce had—
He had raped me.
Gabriel quickly dropped his gaze to the bricks at his feet. The beautiful clouds were deceiving; they warned of approaching storms.
The door swung open to reveal a squat woman with a wide, easy face and short dark hair. “Mrs. Samuels?” he asked her. The woman looked suspiciously at him and Gabriel showed her his identification. “Is Tara Samuels at home? I’m Detective Gabriel McRay, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”
Jonelle Williams poked her face next to the squat woman. “It’s okay, Rosa. Come on in, Gabriel.”
A little acid burned in her invitation. Gabriel responded by slipping his card in her jacket pocket as he stepped by her.
“Where’s your sword and shield, Jonelle?”
“Watch yourself,” Jonelle warned him. Nylons shaded her large calves, and red lipstick shone fresh on her full lips.
Highly polished wood floorboards covered the entry hall and extended out into a large living room. A den and spacious kitchen spanned to the left where Gabriel could make out a portion of a large central island, a Viking range, Sub-Zero refrigerator, and miles of expensive granite countertops. A hallway veering to the right seemed to lead to another country.
A tall, good-looking man with pecan-colored eyes and an unseasonable tan rounded the kitchen entrance and took Gabriel’s hand in his smooth one, shaking it hard. He held a can of Coke Zero in his other hand.
“I’m not a visitor,” Gabriel told him squarely. “And I don’t need entertainment. Your wife is a witness to a homicide I’m investigating, and I need to ask her a few questions.”
Marc Samuels rubbed his chiseled jaw, sizing up Gabriel, who stoically weathered Marc’s gaze. Finally Marc tossed Jonelle a pleading look. She took the bait and ambled forward.
“Mrs. Samuel’s condition is very delicate, Gabe. Go easy, huh?”
“Of course,” Gabriel told her.
Jonelle looked at him doubtfully and then turned her solid frame to Marc. “Sergeant McRay will keep it brief.”
Marc crunched the can in his fist and made a perfect basket into the kitchen sink. His show of confidence reminded Gabriel of Ming. Marc led Jonelle and Gabriel through a set of gleaming French doors into a vast backyard containing an over-sized pool, complete with a slide, a waterfall, and a view of the mountains beyond. An outdoor kitchen and fireplace stood ready for entertaining al fresco.
The trio continued past a large pool house through whose glass doors Gabriel spied not one, but two pool tables. Marc motioned them down a small hill to the stables.
“Tara!” Marc called loudly, cupping his hands around his mouth. From over a small rise, backed by blue sky and white clouds, emerged a woman on horseback. Her gold hair was elfish, playing around her face in the crisp winter breeze. She rode slowly toward the group, and Marc moved to help his wife dismount her Palomino.
Tara Samuels appeared to be fragile, but the frailty seemed to come less from her attractive body and more from some inner melancholy.
Understandable for what she’s gone through, Gabriel thought.
He could clearly make out, under the cable knit sweater Tara wore, breasts too voluptuous for such a slender reed. She’s had augmentation, Gabriel surmised, unable to stop his eyes from surveying her body.
Pulling out his identification, Gabriel fumbled and dropped it. When Marc Samuels retrieved the ID and handed it back, Gabriel read amusement in Samuels’s nut-colored eyes. Obviously, Marc Samuels enjoyed seeing other men falter around his gorgeous wife.
“Can I talk to Mrs. Samuels in private, please?”
“I can hear whatever my wife has to say.”
“Mrs. Samuels?” Gabriel said, turning to Tara. Maybe she wouldn’t want her husband to hear the lurid details of her rape.
“I want Marc to stay.” Tara’s voice, wan like a child’s, seemed tinged with the lull of an anti-depressant.
“Mrs. Samuels,” Gabriel began. “You told Detective Williams here that you do not know the identity of the woman found.”
Tara regarded her short nails.
No polish, also like a young girl, Gabriel thought. He cleared his throat. “You don’t know her?”
Tara shook her head and absently petted the horse’s light mane. The Palomino was a beautiful animal. Gabriel’s eyes left the horse and traveled once again to Tara and how well she wore her jodhpurs.
“Can you tell me what you remember about that day, Mrs. Samuels,” Gabriel asked. “You were abducted—where?”
Tara slowly removed the horse’s bridle. “I was horseback riding. I have another horse boarded at Blue Sage Stables. Dorrie.”
“We have two horses there,” Marc added with a sniff of pride. “Both have championship lineages.”
“It’s very peaceful there.” She walked the horse into the stall. Gabriel followed, catching a scent of lavender coming from underneath her sweater.
“I’ve never had a problem,” Tara said. She peeled a flake of hay from the stack and lovingly fed her horse.
Tara didn’t seem to hear him. “I was returning from my ride. I wasn’t far from the equestrian center when something spooked my horse.” Tara licked her lips once and she seemed to wince internally. “A masked man came out of the brush and my horse reared and I fell off.”
“You fell off into the brush?”
“What the hell else would she fall into?” Marc cried.
Gabriel took his time regarding Marc Samuels and then made a note to have Tara’s pants checked by a forensic botanist.
“Gabriel, we wanted this to be short,” Jonelle said.
“A man came out of the brush,” Gabriel pressed onward. “You say he was wearing a mask. What kind?”
“A ski mask.”
That line of questioning went well despite Tara’s Zoloft fog. Navy blue ski masks, however, were a dime a dozen. “About how tall was he?”
In a drifting voice, not looking at either man, Tara replied, “Taller than you, more like Marc’s height.”
Did she have to notice that Gabriel wasn’t as tall as her husband? Feeling a little sheepish that he cared at all if Tara Samuels found him attractive, Gabriel asked, “And his hands, did you notice his hands?”
Gabriel was hoping she would have noticed if he were black, white, tattooed…
“He was completely clothed in black, except for that navy mask.”
Gabriel saw Tara look at her husband for help, but Marc seemed too concerned to come to her rescue.
“What did he tie your hands with?” Gabriel pressed.
Tara shook her head violently.
“What did he say to you?”
“Nothing.” Tara’s voice was muffled through her hands.
“Okay, Sergeant, time to leave,” Marc declared.
Gabriel turned to Marc. “There’s a girl with no name down at the county morgue who can’t tell anybody anything. Your wife is my only witness.”
“My wife is in no shape to continue.”
Gabriel turned toward Tara. “Mrs. Samuels, I’m sorry to press you like this, but can you tell me anything more about this person? Did he have an accent?”
“I don’t know!” Tara cried. “He tied my hands and stuffed something in my mouth! It was awful! He dragged me to his car.”
“Where was his car parked?” Gabriel made a note to hike around Blue Sage Stables and the surrounding area.
“Time to leave, Mr. McRay,” Marc said. Tara fidgeted out from under Marc’s arm. “He dragged me through some bushes!”
“Did he drag you back to the equestrian center parking lot?”
“I don’t know!”
“Was the other girl in the car?”
“I can’t—” Tara looked miserably from the stables to her horse to Marc. “She was already at the house. He parked on the road and we walked up the driveway. She told me she wanted to go home.”
Not quite following her train of thought, Gabriel shook his head to clear it. “What happened then?”
“She was tied up.”
“No—okay. What happened when you got to the ranch house?”
“Hey!” Marc said. “You’re not welcome anymore!”
“Please, Mr. Samuels.” Gabriel stepped closer to Tara. “You entered the house and then what happened?”
“He tied my hands.”
“In the house? You said he tied your hands on the trail.”
“In the car!”
Gabriel paused, looking at her. Don’t bother to ask the anti-depressant too many questions, he thought. “Did you see the assailant kill the other woman?”
Tara shook her head and crossed her arms tightly.
“Mrs. Samuels,” Gabriel ventured.
“This is torturing my wife!” Marc stepped toward Gabriel. “Hasn’t she been through enough?”
The anger hit, a devil on Gabriel’s shoulder, on his back, in his head. Gabriel swiveled his body toward the taller man. “Would you please stay out of this?”
Marc Samuels slammed his hands on Gabriel’s shoulders. “I’m going to escort you out now, Sergeant Jerko.”
“What kind of cop are you? I’m reporting you, you fucking nutcase!”
“Oh, great, Gabriel!” Jonelle said, coming between them.
“He told me to turn my head away!” Tara screamed suddenly. “I didn’t want to look. She made the most hideous sound. I could hear her choking! I knew she was dying!”
Gabriel, who previously felt pressured to slam his fist into Marc’s handsome features, went limp. Jonelle and Marc stood by dumbly and looked at Tara, who fell into convulsing sobs and knelt down in the mud. Marc went to his wife and gently picked her up.
“It’s okay, baby,” Marc reassured her and then glared furiously at Gabriel.
Jonelle walked Gabriel past the swimming pool, through the Native American motif of the living room, and finally halted him at the front door. “Can’t you control yourself, Gabe?”
“I’m sorry. Dash is better in sensitive situations.”
“I’ll try to get something more from her,” Jonelle told him. “Assuming the rapist is unknown to her, he’s most likely been assaulting other women. I accessed the NCIC, but no similar crimes surfaced.”
Gabriel gazed at the flowing waterfall in the koi pond. “A guy with a ski mask and leather gloves forces her into a car after toppling her from her horse. How could he have been following on foot while she was on a horse?”
“Maybe this was an opportunistic sex offender. He sees a woman alone on a horse. Maybe he was hiking.”
“He still could be opportunistic. He could be a park ranger, a worker at the equestrian center.”
Gabriel acquiesced with a nod. “True. Then he drives her to an abandoned house where he—what? Did he assault Mrs. Samuels there or in the car? Did he kill the other woman first and then assault Mrs. Samuels? How did Mrs. Samuels get away? Did he let her go? Her information was sketchy at best.”
“What do you expect? The woman’s been violated and witnessed a horrible murder. You think people can turn off and on like machines? Don’t you have a heart?”
Gabriel swallowed, and said nothing as Jonelle closed the door. He wandered slowly to his car. Dark clouds began blotting out the sapphire sky, and despite all his unanswered questions, Gabriel could only think of Tara’s striking blue eyes.