June 6, early morning
For Northern tourists, Half Moon Bay was a haven from winter snow and ice. Fourteen miles wide, the peninsula was attached to Florida’s mainland by a natural land barrier called Raider’s Bridge. During September and October, the population doubled from fifty to one hundred thousand or more. Also famous for its white sandy beaches, it offered easy access to all the tourist spots from Orlando to the Florida Keys.
The Bay, as the locals call it, was an easy town to navigate. All the avenues ran east and west and streets north and south. Lined with palm trees, white wrought iron lamp posts and benches placed under shady oak trees, Central Avenue cut through the downtown area from the Bay to the Gulf.
Central Avenue also divided the wealthy from the working class. On the north side, the wealthy residents lived on erotically named streets such as Le Cafe’ Boulevard, the Isle of Shells, Treasure Lane, and Captain’s Row. The houses began in price from a paltry nine hundred thousand and went up from there.
Celebrities regularly came to perform at the Arts Center, but if they wanted to party, it was at Crooks Castle. The big pink hotel had the best rooms, dining, dancing and was close to the Performing Arts Center. Legend had it that the original builder was the second son of an English Duke who had turned to piracy to make his fortune, then settled in Florida and built his fortress on the Gulf. The building had been a private home, a hotel, and stood empty for too many years until it became an eyesore for the town. Luckily a wealthy investor purchased the building and all the land including the marina. Currently, it had been successively refurbished and converted back into a pricey hotel, with extensive additions to the north side.
South of Central, where the local working class residents lived, the homes were compact masonry ranch style dwellings with two or three bedrooms and were substantially less expensive. The streets were lined with oaks, poor man’s orchid, crepe myrtles or other exotic flowering trees.
Some parts of town were not so nice. On Highland Street, in the poorer section, there was an abandoned, two-story derelict monster where rotting drapes prevented the sunshine from penetrating the shadows of a dank interior. The heavy odors of dust and mildew emanated from the building like the smell of rotten food. Outside, the front yard was a jungle of weeds that grew around an old refrigerator that had been dumped next to a rusting Pontiac parked in an unkempt gravel driveway. A dirt path led from the rickety front porch steps, past a rotting clothesline to an equally overgrown rear yard that backed up to a deep drainage ditch.
Dawn was barely breaking across the hot morning sky when Homicide Detective Jarrett Blackwell parked his restored 1976, burgundy El Camino truck behind a new gold Toyota Camry. The Camry belonged to Harvey Coleman, the Medical Examiner. He could see the big man through his front windshield and wondered how Harvey’s short three hundred and twenty-five pound bulk was handling the heat and the humidity. Not too well, from the looks of the underarms of his white, short sleeve shirt, the sweat stains clearly visible. Harvey’s tan trousers looked just as rumpled.
The M.E. stood resting his thick forearms on the open car door of the Toyota. As a white and red striped ambulance pulled up and parked behind the El Camino, Harvey closed his car door and turned to wait for Jarrett.
Six blue and white police vehicles were parked at the end of the street behind a red Fire Rescue truck. Yellow crime scene tape had already been put up to mark off the large overgrown triangular lot. Tall cabbage palms lined the street side of the lot, and a large oak tree-shaded the front of the house. No breeze at all.
Jarrett saw a familiar black Chevy sedan parked in front of Harvey’s car. He glanced around but did not see any sign of his six-foot-four partner. Caruso Jones must be canvassing the neighborhood for other witnesses and information.
“Is Forensics on the way?” Jarrett called as he got out of the vehicle and then retrieved his large yellow flashlight from behind the driver’s seat. “Damn it,” he muttered. Was there ever going to be a break from the heat, even at this hour of the morning?
The odor of wood smoke permeated the morning air, at times strong enough to burn the insides of his nostrils. He was not sure if the smell was from a local fire or a carryover from other fires that kept erupting up and down the state. The drought was so bad that the Governor had banned all sales or individual use of firecrackers for the entire state, other than for specific scheduled Fourth of July events. Florida’s west coast had been lucky so far, but Jarrett had plenty of other problems to keep him focused. Young girls were turning up dead, one each month since January. So far, they had few leads and the bodies kept piling up.
He removed his jacket and tossed the garment on the front seat. After stripping off his tie, he unbuttoned the top two buttons of his white cotton shirt. Sweat had beaded on his back and now was trickling down to soak the waistband of his lightweight tan slacks. Even his deck shoes felt hot on his feet.
“Forensics is here.” Harvey said as Jarrett joined him. “They’re down in the ditch with the body, and the paramedics just got here. I was waiting for you to show up before I take a closer look. I didn’t want to chance falling down that bank.” Harvey added with a chuckle, “Don’t think you or the boys are in the mood to haul my ass back up!”
“No, I don’t need to give myself a hernia, Harvey! Besides, it’s too damn hot to be hauling anyone up from some ditch. What have you got so far?” Jarrett asked, slapping at a mosquito buzzing around his face.
“I have the crime scene unit snapping pictures, taking video and checking for evidence. It’s a bad one. The girl looks to be between fourteen and sixteen.” His tone changed. “Her face looks like ground hamburger, Jarrett.”
“How many more young girls have to die before we catch this bastard?” Jarrett muttered.
“So far, the patrolman who was first on the scene has thrown up three times,” Harvey said with relish. “I think this is his first body.”
Jarrett gave him a dirty look. “What are you doing here, Harvey? You rarely come to a crime scene.”
“I just happened to be over at Bay Memorial when the call came over the radio. Thought I’d come see you guys in action, so to speak.” He changed the subject. “Heard you took a trip to Kentucky. Was it related to this case?”
“No, just a personal matter.” Jarrett shrugged off the question. “Who’s the Reporting Officer?” he asked. He would never discuss anything personal with a gossip like Harvey. Everyone in the department would know his business within hours. Besides, it had been a wasted trip.
“Johnson called it in, but didn’t touch anything. It was hard to see her at first. So he aimed his flashlight beam over the bank, and then proceeded to throw up.” Harvey said, slapping at a mosquito biting his neck. “According to the kid, the old woman who made the call said she was up and heard a car door slam.” He pointed in the direction of a one-story masonry house next door that was in desperate need of repair and a paint job. “She said it sounded as if it was in front of her house. At three in the morning that worried her, because she knew this house was vacant, having been foreclosed on. So she left the lights off and peeked out the front windows. That’s when she saw a big dark car parked in front of this rat trap.
“No one she knows in this block owns a big shiny car like that. Then, she sees someone haul this big bundle out of the trunk and carry it around the back of this house. She couldn’t see too clearly because it was so dark, and she didn’t have her glasses on. Anyway, she thinks it was a man. . . She goes back to bed and gets up two hours later to let her cat out. The big car is gone, but she gets this bad feeling that something bad had happened. So she called the police. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway, her backyard runs parallel to this one,” he added.
Jarrett spotted several uniformed officers standing in a group near the front of the house. Across Ninth Street, he could see television trucks parked near the intersection with their antennas stretched high above the street. Like vultures, the reporters had heard the call over the police band and now hovered, eager for a glimpse of a body, or an interview with a cop about the crime, trying to get a jump on the story.
He didn’t like reporters, and with good reason. After his mother’s murder, they had made his and his father’s life miserable with their relentless and invasive pursuit. Knowing it was futile he hoped they would go away. But, they rarely did.
The fat man started walking behind the paramedics across the damp grass. “Let’s go see what we got.”
Jarrett followed, pointing the flashlight beam ahead, trying not to destroy evidence they might miss in the near dark. They stopped at a spot near the crest of the trench. From what could be seen in the light’s beam, the victim appeared to be a nude young girl. As Harvey had said, she was young and appeared fragile, a small, skinny little thing. She had been dumped at the bank’s edge and rolled into the ditch. Grass stems bent in one direction showed the path the body had taken down the slope. Her descent had been stopped by a bush ten feet down the steep embankment.
The girl lay on her stomach, her upper back to her waist partially hidden by green branches. Two paramedics carefully made their way down the bank and moved to bend over her checking for vital signs.
Jarrett pointed the light at her head. The left side of her face was visible, and even he had to fight the bile rising in his throat. From what he could see of her profile, her face was badly beaten and resembled ground meat just as Harvey had described. A great black bruise surrounded the left eye and there were wounds heavily clotted with blood and dirt high up on the cheek. Her mouth was so swollen it was difficult to tell what was left of her lips.
Rage rushed through him. The kind of animals that killed and robbed young girls of their innocence deserved the same kind of bloody fate, he thought. And, just as infuriating, cops spent countless hours busting their butts to solve such cases, only to see many of the criminals walk away on some minor technicality or through a plea bargain. For those who received a prison sentence, jail time was a comparatively easy trip. He felt that the punishment should fit the crime, especially in cases involving children. However, that was not up to him and never would be. All he could do was track down the monsters who committed these atrocities and leave the punishment to the courts.
Jarrett knew the system was far from perfect. His own father’s death had proven that. Anger still raged inside him over the injustice of that whole mess and the waste of his father’s life. He kept it tightly locked down where it festered deep inside. But at times like these it took all his strength to maintain his control.
He had become a cop so that he could do everything in his power to stop such insane brutality. But, far too often, some sadistic bastard shoved it in his face, and then, at times, he was forced to watch the perpetrator walk free. The only way he could help this child now was to find her killer and enough evidence to nail him down. He backed up a few paces and took a deep breath to cap his temper and clear his head.
In front of him, Harvey squatted on the lip of the ditch and tried to make a visual inspection from there. The M.E. was trying hard not to lose his balance and disturb the crime scene by falling over the wooden rail and rolling down the bank. Flashes from the photographer’s camera blinded him for a second.
“Ah, damn. I can’t see a thing,” Harvey yelled, blinking as spots danced before his eyes, aware that he would have to wait to fix the exact time of death. Even with the sun coming up, he was having trouble seeing. “Son of a bitch,” he exclaimed and huffed as he pushed upright and stood rubbing his eyes. He picked his way to where Jarrett waited. “Her face is pretty mangled, which may make identification difficult. I can’t say definitely until I get her on the table and, from this distance, I can only guess, but I’ll bet she was strangled and raped just like the others. She’s young like they were.”
Taking his handkerchief from his pocket, Harvey mopped the sweat from his eyes and beefy face and then blew his nose. “It’s a piss poor world anymore, Jarrett, when children are brutalized and tossed away like so much garbage. It’s a damned perverted waste.” He eyed Jarrett and shoved the handkerchief into his back pocket. “As soon as I finish the autopsy, I’ll get the report to you.” Then, “God, I wish we’d get a break from this heat.” He patted Jarrett on the shoulder and started to walk toward the road, then stopped. “How many does this one make?”
“She’s the seventh, assuming she’s connected to the other cases,” Jarrett told him harshly, scowling. Even one body was one too many. Seven young girls, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen had been abducted, molested, beaten and murdered. Each had been someone’s daughter and, from what they’d been able to piece together, likely runaways and an easy target for a predator. The girls had believed they were streetwise and safe. Sooner or later, too many such kids frequently turned up as rape, overdose or homicide victims. It pissed him off. He was no closer to finding the killer today, with this girl, than he was with the first one. And they could have been, if the woman next door had promptly called the police.
As Harvey continued walking towards his vehicle, Jarrett stayed to watch as the two paramedics continued to work on the body. One of the men straightened, removed the stethoscope from the girl’s back, and looked at his partner with a puzzled expression. “I have a faint heart beat,” he shouted. Then, barely audible, a faint moan came from between her torn and swollen lips. They all stopped, stunned, as a weak breath was gasped from the bloody mouth.
“My God, she’s still alive!” One of the technicians called into his radio. “We have a live one here. Get down here with a stretcher, fast!” He yelled. “She’s alive, but not for long. There’s a pulse, faint, but a pulse. We have to transport now or we’ll lose her.”
Jarrett stepped aside as the ambulance driver and police officers raced to the aid of the paramedics with a Stokes basket stretcher and ropes. Once they had the victim safely secured and up the steep incline, the EMT yelled ahead to the ambulance driver. “Call Bay Memorial and tell them we’re on the way.” The two men raced with the girl to the waiting ambulance where needed equipment waited.
Jarrett’s stomach lurched and knotted strangely as he caught a glimpse of long dark hair. “My God, it can’t be!” he whispered. “She’d be older, surely. . . .“ He shook his head to dispel the surge of dread, the sudden feeling that he was seeing . . . “Harvey!” he shouted, and ran to stop the fat man from leaving. “The girl just made a noise. I don’t know how, but she’s still alive. They’re taking her to Bay Memorial. I’ll meet you there,” he yelled at the lowered window.
Harvey stared at him for a moment. “My God, you’re kidding me! I can’t believe it! What luck!” He grinned quickly. “Okay, I’ll see you there.” Starting his engine, Harvey pulled out behind the ambulance as it sped away.
Jarrett hurried to his own vehicle then followed Harvey to the emergency room entrance. Arriving several minutes after the ambulance, they stepped into a wild scene as nurses and doctors rushed the stretcher into the Trauma Room just inside the automatic doors.
The doctor, a tall man with dark curly hair, dressed in green scrubs, his face obscured from view by a mask as he worked over the patient, was snapping out orders for IV’s, drugs and portable x-rays. As the medical staff sprang into action, the police officers and detectives were forced out of the room to stand outside the doors and wait. This victim, Jarrett thought, could be their first break in a case that was giving them all ulcers and gray hairs. All these months with relatively little evidence, here was their first real chance to stop the killings, if the girl survived. If she did, could she identify her attacker? All he could do now was wait and hope.
Other ambulances with patients arrived and were assigned to rooms. Jarrett, unable to stand the waiting, stepped outside to catch a breath of fresh air. He watched nurses, clerks and other personnel who were arriving for the morning shift change at seven.
This was the first time he had been to Bay Memorial’s Emergency Room since he had stopped dating one of the nurses who worked there. His relationships were short affairs, mainly because he couldn’t bring himself to open up the way women seemed to want. They dated him knowing he was, as he described himself, skeptical, reticent, and jaded. Each one thought she could change him. However, it was the woman who usually ended the affair after they reached a point where he could not, or would not become more deeply involved.
Jarrett stared at his surroundings without really seeing them, immersed in his thoughts. He had believed in love once, had chased after it like the naive kid he had been. It had proven to be an illusion that had cost him everything and everyone he cared about. And, ever since then, he had refused to expose himself to that level of pain again. That had not stopped him from dreaming of green eyes and a face that had driven him to what felt like the brink of a mad obsession.
It had happened eleven years ago at his parents’ Christmas party. He had been young then and idealistically romantic. He had had a beautiful fiancée and all the advantages of family wealth and close, devoted parents as well. Then, he had watched as, coming up the steps near the front door of his father’s mansion on Long Island, New York, a young woman had slipped on the ice. Because he had lunged to help, she had fallen into his arms. The moment he had looked into those green eyes, he was lost.
Even after all these years, he vividly remembered the later image of her coming across the dance floor in a cream-colored, crocheted lace dress that had made his blood burn with desire. From a distance, she had appeared nude beneath the dress. All he had done during that particular party was to make an ass out of himself by following her from room to room. Like an immature love struck school boy, he had pulled her aside and professed his love to a girl he did not know. A stunning girl. An illusion. He had not known how evil she could be as he held her for a single dance. That dance was followed by the destruction of all he had ever known. That memory still tied his guts in knots.
Those experiences had not stopped his fantasies however. Even now, at night, he still had dreams of the exotic, intoxicating fragrance of her, of long dark hair that made him wild with the desire to run his fingers through it, dreams of kissing her sensuous lips or making love to her. Dreams in which he knew how her lips would taste and that her skin would feel like silk.
It was all nothing more than illusions.
He shook his head to dispel the images that fogged his brain and resurrected memories that were best kept buried since he couldn’t get rid of them. Besides, Jarrett thought, he did not have time to get tangled up with anyone. It was better to focus on the work at hand. He and his partner had needed a break on this case and had finally gotten one. Maybe the Captain and the Sergeant would get off their backs for a while and give them room to work. The murders were considered a high-profile case and had generated a lot of public interest, so Captain Whitmore and Sergeant Angst were always pressing for the latest reports.
There had been little to go on until this morning. The butchered and murdered girls always had long dark hair and pretty faces. They were all teenagers, but their disappearances did not follow a set pattern. Each had been abducted from a different location, at a different time on a different day of the month. But, all had disappeared from Half Moon Bay. Their bodies had been dumped in trash bins from one end of town all the way to the Bay, so far. This girl was different. Jarrett was not sure if this crime was connected to the others since this victim had been found in a ditch, but he would know soon enough. Harvey, he knew, was good at his job. He would take the information from the doctors and make a comparison to the other cases. If there was a connection, the M.E. would find it. Jarrett leaned back against the side of the building and took a deep breath. He was thinking too deeply for this hour of the morning.
The sun was fully up, now. It was not quite seven. The steamy heat he could see rising from the pavement was caused by morning dew. It was going to be another scorcher of a day, he thought. He dreaded it, because the heat seemed to bring out the worst in people. He would try to take a week off once this case was solved and the killer was securely behind bars or preferably dead.
He looked toward the Bay and watched the distant flashing of a white sail against the dark blue of the water. Some people had all the luck, he thought, being out for a cool early morning run across the Bay then south to the Gulf of Mexico. He missed sailing, especially those never forgotten daylong jaunts with his dad.
He shut his eyes, unable to avoid seeing, again, his last view of his father. Matthew W. Blackwell, had been draped over the desk in his study with a small black hole in his right temple and a bright red bloody pool around his head. He had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, believing he had somehow murdered his wife while in a drunken stupor.
Those old memories dredged up too much pain, and so Jarrett tried to focus on the Bay and the sailboats instead.
When he had first driven into Half Moon Bay nine years ago, after two long prior years spent traveling from town to town, he was still searching At the time he had not known if he was still looking for the girl involved in his parent’s death or simply trying to find his own way. All he had known for sure was that he longed for one day that was filled with peace of mind. He had parked his truck outside the Black Pearl restaurant and had sat for hours at a table on the deck, staring out at the marina.
Even then, the day had been hot and the large umbrella shading the table had been a relief from the sun. Line after line of sailing sloops and several good-sized yachts had been moored in the marina, their tall masts swaying in time with the waves that rocked their hulls. Great mountains of white cumulus clouds had floated above the horizon, intensifying the blue of the sky as sea birds rode the air currents over the water.
Behind him, in the tall palms that lined the roadway had come the screeching of Quaker parrots mixed with the chirping of sparrows. Later, he would discover the parrots could be heard announcing their flight over the city at all times of the day. Some claimed the birds had escaped after Hurricane Andrew tore up the southern tip of Florida and had never returned south. On a dark stormy day, their racket was almost a guarantee that the sun was going to shine again.
As he had sat there, the pain that had ridden him hard for over eleven years had been eased by the smell of the salt air and the sound of the birds. He had munched on a turkey sandwich, watching the gulls and pelicans which had perched on nearby pilings, waiting for a morsel of food to be tossed their way. Signs along the deck rail had forbidden feeding them. He had been tempted to ignore the warning. The longer he had sat there, the more at peace he had felt. That was when he had decided to stay. It was that simple. Within two days, he had found an apartment, notified his attorney to wire him money, and where to send the monthly check from his trust fund.
A whiff of wood smoke brought Jarrett back to the present as the sound of laughter was carried up from the street. He glanced toward the corner of the hospital building in time to see the backs of two women, one with long red hair, and the other with dark mahogany hair cascading below her shoulders. They were dressed alike in navy skirts and white blouses as they strolled past him and out of view. His heart lurched and the old ache flared.
“No!” he muttered violently. Up until this string of murders, he had found some sort of peace during his stay in Half Moon Bay. He refused to let his obsessive search start all over again.
“No what?” Harvey asked, coming up beside him.
“Nothing!” Jarrett growled.
Raising his eyebrows, the M.E. retorted, “Sorry I asked!”
Jarrett frowned and inhaled sharply. “I saw a woman who reminded me of someone I met a long time ago, that’s all. Not her, obviously. Sorry for taking your head off.” He had been thrown off-balance by the sight of all that dark hair, first with the victim, now with this other woman. He had deluded himself into believing he had buried those tangled love, hate feelings, and that he did not care anymore. It had all roared back all because of long legs, a shapely, slender backside and precisely remembered long curly dark hair.
Jarrett concentrated on blocking Harvey’s curiosity. “What’s the word on the girl?” he asked.
“Comatose. Dr. Corbett is admitting her to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. He won’t know anything definite until tomorrow. If she lives through the night, she may make it. Otherwise, all we can do is sit and wait,” Harvey said.
Jarrett nodded. “I’ll order a guard on her room around the clock. No one is to know what happened to her. As far as anyone here is concerned, she was mugged and is over twenty-one. Keep all information on your end quiet. I’ll control this end,” he finished and hurried back inside to speak with the doctor and to squelch any leaks to the press.
He had spotted the TV trucks parked on the street, which meant the reporters were still around and inside. They had to be put off at all costs. Once he established the routine concerning the girl, he leaned against the counter to relax for a moment, and wished for a cup of hot black coffee. His shoulders sagging with exhaustion, Jarrett wondered what progress his partner was making at the crime scene. Caruso probably had every person in the neighborhood up and interviewed, then had swept the area with the proverbial vacuum cleaner.
Any possible piece of evidence could point to the killer and it all had to be tagged, documented and processed as valid, or eliminated. It took time, valuable time, before the next victim turned up. First, they had to identify this girl. Given that the assault had happened last night, maybe Missing Persons had a report that might be just now coming into the office. He had little hopes of identifying the car. The eyewitness had not been sure of the make and had been unable to see the license plate. There were no tire tracks either.
Jarrett rubbed his eyes. He had not slept well before getting the call at four-fifty that morning. Now it was after seven. He needed to go home and sleep for about three hours, but it was impossible. There was too much work to do. He removed the cell phone from his pocket and started to dial his office, but stopped, finger poised above the numbers, staring, as before him, coming through the door from the ER waiting room was, beyond question, the same woman who had destroyed his life. Who had ever since haunted and filled his nights with turbulent dreams. His mind reeling, Jarrett whirled and fled out of the glass doors before she could see his face. Once outside, he leaned against the building with his insides knotting up and his heart pounding.
It was her. She was actually here in this town. By sheer, freakish luck, his search was now over. All he had to do was walk back through the automatic doors and confront the woman he had been obsessed with for the past eleven years. . . Which was a bad idea, and he knew it. He could not face her. Not yet. His feelings just had been ripped open by the sight of her. He might lose control. Besides, if she saw him, she might run. If that happened, he might never get the answers he desperately needed. He was not going to take that chance. Their meeting had to be carefully planned. And they would meet. . . . Keeping that in mind, Jarrett pushed away from the building and headed for his truck. He needed to find Caruso and proceed with this investigation. But now, and amazingly, at last, he knew where to find her.