There’s a body in your alley…
Arianna Jackson—AJ to her friends—and her occasionally well-behaved Alaskan Malamute, Nicoh, live a normal, uneventful, admittedly mundane existence, where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens.Until it does.Early one morning, AJ stumbles upon a horrifying scene—a girl’s body lies broken in the dumpster behind her home, her face beaten and mutilated.
A secret reveals you’re living a lie…
As if that weren’t enough to upset the balance of normal, things go from bad to worse when she learns of her connection to the murdered girl. Suddenly, AJ realizes her entire life has been filled with secrets and lies.
A killer hunts for you…
Together with her trusty sidekick, Nicoh, and BFF, Leah, AJ must search for answers. But can she, when finding the truth proves to be more deadly than living the lie?
Would you search for the truth if you knew it could kill you?
Join AJ and her pals as they race to unravel the mystery of her past, where the pieces of the puzzle bring more questions than answers and the only certainty is the killer’s end game—AJ’s life.
Find your truth…
Grab your copy of Gemini Rising TODAY and join others who’ve enjoyed this suspense-filled page-turner that keeps you guessing to the end…and beyond.
Targeted Age Group:: General, PG-13
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I write books about topics and in genres that I enjoy reading. As a lifelong reader, I have always been fascinated by the written word and though I didn't pursue writing as a career until later in life (and several corporate jobs later), I have never looked back. There are always more stories to tell… 😉
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Everyday life. Seriously, there are interesting 'characters' all around us, each and every day.
Mischievous Malamute Mystery Series Book 1
Copyright © 2014 Harley Christensen
Life is funny sometimes.
You go through it believing you are a plain old Joe, or Jane, living a normal, mundane existence.
You pay bills.
You walk your dog.
The point being, you get up every day and do it all over again, because nothing out of the ordinary ever really happens.
Here’s the kicker: Once in a while Life throws in a bit of mischief—kind of like the snarky little brother you wish you could permanently lock in his room, rather than those few cherished times you’ve gotten away with when Mom wasn’t looking—only much, much worse. And because you’re expecting the same old same old, you’re flabbergasted when Life punches you in the gut.
As you crumble to the ground, gasping for air, you might have that notorious ah-ha moment. You know the one I mean. The one where you come to the realization the experience was your wake-up call—a reminder you’re alive and in control of your destiny—and to make the most of it.
The cynic in me thinks it’s Life’s not-so-funny way of reminding you who’s really in control—the punch line being—you only think you are.
Shortly after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, I woke to a start, realizing it was garbage day and I’d forgotten to set mine out. Again. It was late November and though it doesn’t get that cold in this part of the Southwest—certainly not like other parts of the country—the Saltillo tile was chilly on my feet as I jumped out of bed. Nicoh, my ninety-eight pound Alaskan Malamute—still on top of the bed and ever the helpful one—peered at me from under the blankets and pillows he managed to steal during the night, before returning to whatever doggie dreams he’d been having.
Ugh. Someday I’d get my bed back. Today wasn’t going to be that day. The city’s garbage collection truck would arrive in ten minutes, so I grabbed the trash bag from the kitchen and opened the door. It was still dark outside but the moon hung lazily in the sky, providing a single source of light as I moved through the backyard and out the iron gate that led to the alley where I shared a dumpster with my neighbors.
Except for the occasional hum of a passing car on the nearby street, it was silent. With my free hand, I wiped the sleep from my eyes and cursed myself again before tossing the lid of the dumpster, which as usual, was sticky and nasty. Just wonderful. I firmly grabbed the trash bag with both hands to toss it in but stopped short when I noticed the smudgy reddish-brown imprint my hand left against the starkness of the white bag. I started to look more closely when a putrid metallic stench filled the air, forcing me to focus my attention on the open dumpster.
I swallowed hard and tried not to breathe in too deeply as I looked over the edge, expecting to find a package of rotten meat or at most, a dead animal. I gasped in disbelief and shock at the horrific scene before me.
A girl’s thin frame, clad only in a hot pink tank top and jeans, nestled among the trash bags and lawn trimmings. Her bare arms—flung above her head as if celebrating a touchdown—were a sharp contrast to her legs, which were bent in awkward, unnatural angles beneath her.
Disturbing as her body was, her face told an even more vicious and sinister tale. No, there was no celebration. Someone had made sure of that when they erased whatever smile she’d had—the wrinkle her nose made as she laughed, the twinkle that glistened in her eyes—replacing it with a death mask of pulverized flesh and bone, rendering her faceless. Unrecognizable. Blood congealed in her hair, likely once long and lush, now matted and tangled into oblivion.
Though sickened at the sight, an immense sadness came over me—who could be so cruel, so hateful—to end her life so violently? I clenched my fists as sadness turned to anger.
The blaring horn of the garbage truck disrupted my thoughts. I dropped the forgotten trash bag as I swirled to face it and waved my arms frantically at the driver, who looked at me through his hazy window with disgust. I was clearly messing with his schedule. I ignored the profanities he barked in my direction and continued to flap my arms, begging him to stop.
“Sir, please call 911!” I yelled. “There’s a body in the dumpster!”
The worker pulled the brake on his truck, jumped out and joined me at the dumpster, probably doubting my sanity. After a whiff and an unexpected eyeful, he turned away and vomited loudly against my neighbor’s retaining wall. Several seconds later he coughed, pulled out his cell phone and called 911.
Finally, he addressed me, “Hon, you seriously could’ve warned me.”
I shook my head and for once, held my tongue.
Detective Jonah Ramirez stepped out of the cruiser and checked his watch. 4:45 a.m. Man, did it ever get it any easier? he wondered to himself. After sixteen years on the job—eleven of them in Homicide—he knew the answer. Over time, he tried to put the names and faces behind him, letting them blend into one another until they became less and less distinct. Still, the memories haunted him. Drove him. He shrugged as he surveyed the scene unfolding in the alley.
The crime scene unit had been dispatched shortly after the 911 call at 4:07 a.m., so Robert Jabawski and his team were in the midst of their investigation.
“Whatcha got for me, Jabba?” Ramirez asked as he reached the lead technician, calling the man by his nickname.
The stout tech grimaced as he came up from bent knees—an old football injury, he always claimed—pushing thick black-framed glasses to the top of his head before squinting at Ramirez.
“Nice of you to finally show up, Detective,” he quipped. “You bring me any coffee or are you just here to block my light?”
Ramirez chuckled, then handed his old friend the usual offering: a venti-sized Starbucks Pike Place Roast with six Splenda packets and a splash of half-and-half. Jabawski sniffed the contents and nodded in approval.
“We’ve got ourselves a female victim—no identification—with extensive trauma to the face and head. Damage was inflicted elsewhere, but her body made its way into the dumpster before she expired.”
“A beating?” Ramirez questioned.
Jabawski nodded. “Yeah, it’s looking that way. There was a significant amount of rage driving this perp. Girl’s got no face left. Here, see for yourself.” The tech moved a few feet to where two members of his team were working.
Death filled his nostrils as Ramirez followed Jabawski to the dumpster. Though he’d grown accustomed to her pungent fragrance over the years, it was Death’s indiscriminate viciousness that set him on edge. As the techs continued to work, he leaned in to observe her current reaping. Jabawski had been right, Death had been brutal—savage even—as she snatched the girl’s life into her rakish clutches. Triumphant, no doubt, as she claimed her victory, despite the means with which she obtained it. He knew it was her way. Death—like Life—didn’t play fair. Ramirez shook his head in frustration and turned his attention back to Jabawski.
“Anything to work with yet?” he asked.
“We’re still collecting, but it’s not promising,” Jabawski replied somberly. “We’re working with a dumpster and an alley, not exactly a CSU’s dream.”
“Witnesses?” Ramirez prompted.
“Nope. The owner of the house directly behind us found the victim while taking her trash out. Her name is Arianna Jackson. City’s trash guy arrived within a minute or two after that. She waved him down and got him to call 911. Anyway, he’s over by his truck. Despite having chucked his morning McMuffin all over the wall, he has quite a mouth on him. Ms. Jackson is with your guys in her backyard.” Jabawski thumbed over his left shoulder.
As Ramirez started in that direction, Jabawski called after him, laughing, “Watch out for the big bad wolf, he’s got a mouth on him, too.”
Everything was moving in slow motion. Or at least it appeared to be. Police officers and crime scene technicians swarmed like worker bees from the hive, scouting out their surroundings meticulously, in the hope of finding even the most minuscule of clues.
I’d spoken to several officers and carefully detailed my actions before finding the body. One officer eventually allowed me to retrieve Nicoh, who had awoken from his doggie slumber and—not one to be left out—had gone into full howl mode. Not pretty given the hour.
Unfortunately, it also hadn’t done much to detract the small crowd of onlookers congregating at the alley’s entrance. Now that I was safely in his sights, his piercing howls subsided, though there were still the occasional whoo-whoos as techs and officers passed. If anybody was going to get the last word, it would be Nicoh.
While we waited, I offered the crime scene techs shoe prints, fingerprints and paw prints for exclusionary purposes, along with a couple of other items I thought might be useful, including a list of neighbors.
At first, they indulged me, but after a short while, most resorted to a tight smile, a nod of the head or a pat on the back before politely asking me to return to my backyard to wait for Detective Ramirez, the lead investigator on the case, to arrive.
With nothing left to do, I resorted to flicking paint chips off the weathered bench where I sat. Nicoh grumbled in disgust—hopefully at the situation and not my choice of tasks—before sighing and placing his massive head on his paws.
We carried on like this for a bit until a dark figure strode purposefully through the back gate. I had to keep from gasping audibly as I took in the tall, imposing stranger. Wavy black hair framed tanned skin, a strong, chiseled jaw and piercing green eyes. Though dressed in faded jeans, worn cowboy boots and a semi-pressed button-down shirt, his demeanor indicated he was the man in charge. His expression gave nothing away but I knew he was sizing us up, analyzing us in his cop-like way.
“Alaskan Malamute?” he asked.
“Very good, Detective Ramirez. Most people assume he’s a Siberian Husky or wolf-hybrid, but Nicoh’s 100 percent Malamute,” I replied. “All ninety-eight pounds of him.”
Nicoh sat up straighter and whoo-whoo’d with delight because of course, any conversation he was the subject of had to be a good one, right? Some protector, I mused.
“You know who I am.” It was more of a statement than a question, though Ramirez arched an eyebrow in mock surprise.
“Well, I’ve been interviewed by most everyone here, excluding the media, of course,” I subconsciously snarled out the word “media,” which ignited a flicker of amusement in Ramirez’s eyes. “Anyway, several of the officers mentioned you were the lead detective, noted I would need to speak with you and told me that my animal and I would need to sit quietly and wait until you arrived on the scene,” I paraphrased the actual conversations, but was sure Ramirez caught the sarcasm. “So, now that you are here, how can I help you, Detective?”
Ramirez hadn’t been sure what to make of Jabawski’s last comment, but as he entered the gate leading into Arianna Jackson’s backyard, two things struck him.
First was the large canine. Surrounded by a dark mask, its eyes reflected off the lights, giving them an eerie, copper cast. It bore a strong, muscular body with a bushy, curly tail, draped carelessly along its back as it rose to acknowledge his arrival. Its pointed, megaphone-like ears jutted forward. If not mistaken, it was an Alaskan Malamute—not a breed he’d often seen in a city like Phoenix.
The second thing he noticed was the woman the dog pressed himself against protectively. She wore an oversized crimson Henley, black running pants and ASICS with fluorescent yellow shoelaces. Her long dark hair was pulled into a high ponytail on the back of her head. Angled bangs shaded her eyes, though Ramirez could tell they were bright blue, with a fleck of something he couldn’t quite make out, given the distance between them. Whatever it was, it was striking. She wore no makeup but had a healthy flush to her cheeks. While tall and slender, her composed manner indicated she could handle both herself and that big dog, if needed.
She wasn’t rude but seemed eager to proceed, so he dispensed with the small talk and got down to business. As he questioned her, he found her direct and to the point, with a great deal of confidence and control. Her eyes met his with each response, her voice never wavering as she detailed her steps. A cool customer for someone who had stumbled upon a body in her dumpster, he noted. It didn’t mean she was immune to it, just that she’d tucked it away until prepared to deal with it. He’d seen it before—she didn’t want to lose control in front of him. She was a tough one, for sure.
After they finished their discussion, he offered to call someone to come and stay with her or to take her elsewhere. As he’d expected, she politely thanked him for his offer but declined. He gave her his card, told her he’d be in touch and scratched Nicoh behind the ears as he turned to leave.
Violet, like a brewing storm, he decided—that was the color of the flecks in her eyes.
Detective Ramirez quickly put me at ease as he questioned me and for the first time in a long while, I found another person’s company strangely comforting. In fact, I didn’t relish the thought of him leaving, but holding him hostage with my feminine wiles wasn’t an option, considering the circumstances.
I kicked myself. Seriously? Thoughts like that were so unlike me, I must have been suffering from exhaustion. I sighed to myself and let Ramirez go before I made a complete idiot out of myself. Well, almost.
“One last question?” I asked.
Ramirez looked at me intently. “Shoot.”
“You got a first name, Detective?” Eck, I mentally winced at my obviousness.
Ramirez broke into a small smile. “Jonah. Goodnight, Ms. Jackson.”
“AJ,” I countered.
“Goodnight, AJ.” And with that, he strode out of the gate, just as easily as he’d come in.
Nicoh peered at me—a glint of mischief in his eyes—and for a moment, I thought he was going to follow. I know how you feel, buddy, I thought. I know how you feel.
He stood on the fringe of the crowd, smirking to himself as he eavesdropped on their whispered speculations about what had transpired in the alley. If they only knew.
The task had been completed. Not to his satisfaction, of course, but completed. One more detail lingered. After years of waiting, it would soon be finished.
For now, he needed to focus on the end goal—obtain the final piece of the puzzle and destroy anyone who got in his way.
Getting back to normal—uh yeah, good luck with that. After finding the body, I tried my best, but something was off. Several days later, as Nicoh and I walked to the park, I reflected on what bothered me. True, the incident had been a shocker. It wasn’t as though I’d seen many dead bodies before, certainly not ones mutilated so barbarically. I shuddered, the image forever tattooed in my memory.
As unpleasant as it had been, that wasn’t it. It was almost as though I’d missed something, something I’d seen and not registered. I kicked myself, my eyes had been trained better than that. As a freelance photographer, I was familiar with visualizing subject matter from multiple angles and perspectives. Yet this time, it eluded me. Maybe it was something I hadn’t seen? A feeling, perhaps?
I continued to rehash the events of that morning and was so engrossed I nearly ran Nicoh head-on into the Greyhound trio—Molly, Maxine and Maybelline. Fortunately, I adjusted my step just in time and nodded to their owner—a man whose name I’ll admit I don’t remember. He nodded in return while the dogs did their usual sniff-and-wag bit.
Nicoh straightened his stance more than usual—head and ears held high, chest thrust forward—perhaps to compensate for my clumsiness, but certainly not for the affections of the elegant trio. Nope, he had his eye on a she-devil named Pandora, a silver and white Keeshond that lived around the corner with a retired lawyer. Sadly, I didn’t remember his name either, but Pandora managed to find her way into our yard to visit on occasion, so her lawyer and I knew each other by dog and yard. Our little neighborhood was funny that way.
Situated in east Phoenix on the borders of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, we were nestled into an area that was older than most, but where the homes and yards were well-maintained, despite their age. Citrus trees and date palms lined the streets, providing a canopy from the blistering Arizona sun without blocking the view of the surrounding mountains. A once highly-coveted neighborhood among the up-and-coming and affluent, the attraction of newer, cookie-cutter neighborhoods farther north had lured residents away over the past ten to fifteen years. While lacking personality, these newer neighborhoods provided many conveniences—high-end outdoor malls, restaurants, theaters, etc.—within a stone’s throw in every direction, converting the congested neighborhoods into mini cities, which appealed to the masses.
A few diehards, like my parents, stayed on in the old neighborhood, meticulously caring for and upgrading their lovely Ranch-style home with its sprawling yard and manicured gardens until they died unexpectedly two years ago. The house had been left to me—their only child. I could not afford such a house on my freelance earnings alone, but my parents had paid cash for it and then set aside a monthly stipend for maintenance and updates, which was also willed to me. I couldn’t bear to part with it yet. It was the house they loved so much, where I’d grown-up and created many incredible memories. The memories and the house were all I had left of my parents. A lump grew in my throat as I thought of them. Missed them.
I was jerked to the present by my companion’s annoyed whoo-whoos. We had reached the park. No distractions while on his time, Nicoh reminded me. Doggie translation: Time to get down to business.
Ramirez felt uneasy as he approached the house. He had initially liked the spunky gal. Maybe a bit too much. True, she had been annoyingly abrupt at their first meeting, but he’d also found her direct and brutally honest—traits he admired. Absently, he shook his head. Even though experience and an ever-increasing mound of concrete evidence told him what he was about to do was just, the task gave him no pleasure. He exhaled deeply as he knocked on the front door.
Nicoh and I had returned from our nightly jaunt around the neighborhood when there was a knock on the door. Strange that the person wouldn’t ring the doorbell, I thought. Nicoh simply huffed at the interruption. It was dinnertime, after all. Some guard dog, I grumbled. So glad someone had his priorities straight. My thoughts on Nicoh’s questionable qualities ceased as I opened the door to a grim-faced detective.
“Oh, good evening, Detective Ramirez.” I surprised myself by managing to sound halfway put-together, though inside I felt anything but.
“Good evening, Ms. Jackson,” the Homicide detective replied evenly, though I noticed he was shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. Uh-oh, I thought. This can’t be good.
“Please, call me AJ,” I reminded him. “I assume you are here about the case? Do you have more questions for me? Have there been any new developments? Has the poor girl been identified? Has her family been notified? Are there any leads?” Ok, I’ll admit it, perhaps babbling nonstop and getting to the point should be mutually exclusive.
Ramirez suppressed a smile when AJ fired-off a series of questions the moment he’d said hello. She had been much the same way the morning she’d found the girl in the dumpster. A casual observer would have thought her a calm, cool and collected customer, undaunted by the tragic circumstances that surrounded her. He had the benefit of training and experience, however, and knew the type well. It was a front, a shell she created to keep everything and everyone at an arm’s length when the world around her was out of control. By presenting the tough exterior, she was able to retain some semblance of that control, even if it was only of herself and her emotions.
She had proven his point when she declined his offer to call a friend or family member to join her that morning. Even before he’d asked, he’d known she would turn him down. In fact, she seemed to have anticipated the offer when she quickly but graciously declined, as though purposely willing him to move on, to focus his attention elsewhere. Anywhere, but on her.
He forced his thoughts back to the present and the matter at hand. Given her nature, she would expect directness, he decided.
“Actually, yes, there have been developments, AJ,” he began. “We have identified the victim but not notified the next-of-kin because there are none. We have no suspects—a few persons-of-interest, at most and at this point, only theories on the motive,” he paused, but she looked at him expectantly, so he pressed on. “The victim has been identified as Victoria Winestone, a commercial real estate agent from Los Angeles. Does the name sound familiar to you?”
“No, I don’t believe so,” she responded firmly, though he could feel a cloud of unease surround her. “Should it?”
He ignored her question and continued, “I’d like to show you a couple of pictures. One is a copy of Ms. Winestone’s California driver’s license, taken a few years ago, and the other is from her LinkedIn profile, which is more recent.”
Ramirez removed the pictures from the worn file folder he’d been holding. He placed each photo in front of her, studying her as she peered with interest, first at one, then the other. After a few moments, her expression transformed from one of curiosity to another of surprise and confusion, her mouth forming a tiny “o.”
“As you can see, AJ, the resemblance is quite remarkable.” Though she didn’t reply, he moved on. “We compared Ms. Winestone’s fingerprints to the ones you had on file from your freelance work with the County. Again, the similarities were remarkable. Finally, we compared Ms. Winestone’s DNA to the sample you graciously provided at the crime scene,” Ramirez paused to catch his breath, collect his thoughts and make sure AJ was still with him. She was, though her expression hadn’t changed.
He delivered the rest, the part he had been dreading since his arrival, “The thing is, AJ, the DNA samples matched. In fact, they were exact matches.” Ramirez placed a hand firmly on her arm. “Having said that, I have to ask you again. Are you sure you have never met this woman—murdered feet away from your home—who, by all accounts, was your identical twin sister?”
I gasped at his words, my mind reeling as I attempted to register their meaning. Though her hair was several shades lighter—a honey blonde compared to my reddish-brown—the girl in the pictures did bear a striking resemblance. Her eyes were the same crystal blue, speckled with a hint of violet. A quirk of a smile played on the left-hand side of her mouth, turning it up ever so slightly, as though amused by something only she was aware of. Perhaps an inside joke meant solely for her? I, too, had that quirk.
I scoffed. What Detective Ramirez was suggesting was beyond ridiculous. A twin? An identical twin, at that? It wasn’t even possible. I was an only child. If my parents had still been alive, they would have found the conversation laughable.
Still, the fact remained. A girl had been murdered. Brutally. Her face bashed in, her body broken and disposed of like trash in my alley. How could this have happened? And why?
Suddenly, the ground felt as though it was shifting as nausea set in and bile threatened the base of my throat. Oh, no—I was not going to faint. Or hurl. Or cry. Or burst into some other crazy display of emotions. I squeezed my hands into fists and clutched them at my side, waiting for the feelings to subside. I knew I was being silly. Reactions like this were normal and probably expected, especially given the circumstances. They just weren’t my normal.
Yet somehow, I knew from that moment on, normal was going to be a thing of the past.
Nicoh grumbled quietly, as if in agreement.
After that revelation, “no” was all I could manage, as a significant amount of brain-freeze had developed.
“There’s more,” Ramirez said. This time he would not meet my gaze.
“What?” I squeaked.
“Two years ago, your parents, Richard and Eileen Jackson perished when their plane crashed while in transit from Albuquerque to Colorado Springs.”
I shuddered at the memory but added, “Yes, along with their pilot, Phil Stevens.”
“According to the official report,” Ramirez nodded toward the thickly-bound document he was holding, “all three passengers were accounted for and identified by their dental records. The investigator ruled the cause of the crash as engine failure, which was consistent with the pilot’s final communication. In the end, it was considered an untimely, albeit tragic accident and the investigation was subsequently closed.” This was not news to me, so I simply nodded in agreement.
“A couple of days ago, I was in Starbucks getting my morning brew when I was approached by two men who introduced themselves as private investigators from Los Angeles. Although I was skeptical, they indicated they had some information to offer. Typically with PIs, it’s the other way around, so I decided to hear them out.
“They were searching for a client of theirs who had recently gone missing after heading to Phoenix. That client was Victoria Winestone. Unfortunately, I had to break the news about her death.
“As it turned out, Victoria had hired them six months earlier to quietly look into your parent’s accident—everything from the events leading up to the crash to the investigation that followed.” Ramirez stopped briefly to let this sink in.
Frankly, I was dumbfounded. “Why would this girl go to the trouble of hiring PIs to investigate an accidental plane crash? More importantly, why was she even interested in my family in the first place?”
“According to the PIs, Victoria was convinced the crash was not accidental. She felt bigger forces were at play. Forces that not only affected your family but hers as well. The thing is, Victoria’s parents recently died, too,” he said solemnly.
“Wow, that is awful, though I still don’t see the correlation…”
When I didn’t finish my thought, Ramirez completed it for me, “I know it’s not going to make any sense, but there was a correlation, a connection between all of you. Victoria had proof of it. Proof you were her sister. Proof you were both adopted.” He paused to look at me and for a moment, I wondered what he saw: fear, disbelief, horror?
Whatever it was, he let pass and continued on, though his voice had grown quiet, “The PIs indicated Victoria had known about you and the adoption for some time but weren’t sure why she hadn’t made contact. They were surprised when she suddenly left them a voicemail, indicating her plans to travel to Arizona, for you. It was the last time they heard from her. The next day, she was dead.”
My head was spinning. Had I fallen asleep or been knocked unconscious, left to fend for myself in some sort of bizarro alternate reality? Or, better yet, perhaps I was being punk’d? I was sure Ramirez thought I had lost my marbles as I swiveled my head from side to side, searching for the hidden cameras. Finding none, I took a deep breath and opted to stare at the worn tread on my tennis shoes while I mulled things over.
“Are you ok, AJ?” Ramirez asked, concern filling his voice.
After a moment, I looked up at him and nodded absently. “In the last twenty minutes, I’ve found out”—I held my fingers up as I counted—“that one: the girl brutally murdered a few hundred feet away from where we are standing was not only my sister but my dead twin sister; two: I was adopted, and three: according to this dead twin sister, my parent’s deaths were not the result of an unfortunate cosmic accident, but of some evil force out there killing adoptive parents.” I laughed, perhaps a bit too harshly. “Seriously? This has all the makings of a bad Lifetime movie. Now that you’ve shared, what is it you expect me to do with all this information, Detective?”
Ramirez nodded in understanding. He had entered her world, basically dumped all over it and then offered nothing in return but confusion and drama. She had every right to question him. He owed her. It was time to come clean.
“Shortly after Victoria’s body was identified, the local FBI swooped in, debriefed us, rounded up all pertinent files and told us they would take it from there. So officially, we’re off the case.” I started to say something, but he held up his hand. “To make matters worse, every single time those guys take over one of our cases, it conveniently gets filed into their black hole of bureaucracy. In the meantime, any leads there might have been will go cold.
Unfortunately, this also means Victoria Winestone will end up a statistic—another nameless victim whose justice will never come—and that does not sit right with me. Not one bit.” Ramirez became quiet for a moment, his eyes haunted, before turning to face me.
“I took a huge risk coming here and telling you all of this, but I had a gut feeling about you—one that told me you would want to know more and the opportunity to do more.”
I shook my head in disbelief and nearly laughed at the absurdity of that comment.
“What is it you think I can do, Detective? I am nobody. A photographer with a dog who has bad manners and even worse breath. None of that qualifies me for the starring role as Nancy Drew.”
Ramirez chuckled. “Dog-related behavioral and hygiene issues aside, you’ve got a lot more going for you than you think. Plus, you’ve got two PIs at your disposal.”
At my furrowed brow, he quickly added, “Don’t worry. They don’t have your name yet—and I won’t pass it along until you agree—but they’re more than ready to get back to work on this. I’ll admit, while they aren’t saints, they are decent, hard-working guys—guys who don’t like it when their client gets herself killed on their watch. They want to make this right, AJ, and I fully believe you can trust them to do it.”
“But what if your bosses or the FBI find out? Surely they’ll realize the information about Victoria’s identity was leaked from somewhere?”
“I will deal with it as it comes.”
He provided me with the PIs particulars, scratching Nicoh behind the ears before turning to leave. As he pulled the door behind him, he looked at me, his gaze intense.
“Watch your back. My gut also tells me this is far from over.”
“Is your gut ever wrong, Detective?”
“Good or bad, there’s a first time for everything.”
My brain was still swimming from Ramirez’s visit when the front door opened and my best friend, Leah Campbell, popped her head in. Despite the concern crinkling at the corners of her eyes and mouth, I smiled at the sight of her. Tired of the Sunshine Barbie nickname her co-workers at the newspaper had bestowed upon her, Leah recently rebelled by lopping off her long shimmering locks in favor of a shorter, spiky cut—which still made her adorable, but gave her more of an edgy, precocious appearance. Think Meg Ryan in Addicted to Love.
She offered me one of the iced lattes she was holding, then slipped a doggie treat from her pocket and tossed it into the air. Nicoh inhaled it without chewing, all while giving her one of his famous I-almost-had-to-wait looks. I took a long sip of my beverage before nodding in satisfaction and then proceeded to fill her in on my conversation with Ramirez. She said nothing until I finished, though her usually perky features were grim as she listened intently.
“You ok?” she asked after a long moment, self-consciously attempting to tuck a stray spike behind her ear, only to have it errantly jut in the opposite direction. “It’s a lot to digest for anyone, Ajax. Even you.”
She used the nickname she had given me years earlier. Not that I liked being compared to cleaning products but she had a point—despite my sometimes outwardly abrasive and direct nature, I always managed to get the job done.
I shrugged. I certainly didn’t feel like I was living up to my nickname today. I turned to the kitchen counter, where I had spread out the notes for my next photo assignment—a failed attempt at distracting myself from the day’s events.
“What’s this?” Leah asked, eyeing me carefully. “I thought you were going to take a couple of days off?”
“I was, but wallowing in self-pity doesn’t pay the bills or feed this gluttonous beast.” I scratched Nicoh behind his massive, downy-soft ears and was rewarded with a low whoo-whoo of approval.
“Besides,” I continued, “Charlie basically threatened me if I didn’t get the shots of his new Tempe Town Lake condo done.” I waved to the paperwork in front of me. “Apparently, he has a deadline for another hoity-toity magazine.”
Ahh…Charlie Wilson. My client. Born with a titanium spoon in his mouth. The spoiled grandson of a software magnate. Never worked a day in his life, but notorious for throwing very public, Oscar award-winning—or at the very least, Daytime Emmy award-winning—tantrums. And, to keep up appearances, the tantrums surfaced daily—sometimes even hourly—though thankfully, I hadn’t had the displeasure of being on the receiving end. Yet. I wasn’t inclined to make this the first time, either.
I should have been grateful Charlie had chosen me as his photographer. Of course, he had only done so because he felt we had history, if you could call attending the same high school history.
Our working relationship started at a party we both attended after returning from college—me from UCLA and Charlie from Harvard. While rekindling said history, Charlie generously offered to throw some work my way.
Charlie turned out to be more demanding and difficult than all my other clients combined, but his jobs not only paid the bulk of my bills, they provided me with the word-of-mouth needed to get my business off the ground.
At the time, I was appreciative, as I had recently started my freelance photography business, aptly named Mischievous Malamute after a few photoshoot mishaps featuring my canine companion. Thankfully, it had never been more than a couple of misplaced dinner rolls or uprooted props, but it was still embarrassing. In the end, naming the business after my companion seemed appropriate—not only as a warning to future clients but a reminder to myself to keep him in check while on location.
I sighed and returned my attention to Leah, who was still focused intently on me. She knew, just as I did, Charlie’s project provided a temporary distraction. I’d have to deal with Ramirez’s news sooner or later. Knowing me as she did, she decided sooner was better and jumped in head-first.
“What do you want to do, Ajax? And, more importantly, what can I do to help?”
After much debate, Leah and I agreed—actually, Leah decided and I agreed—it couldn’t hurt to meet the private investigators to get their take on the situation.
Using the business card Ramirez left, I made an appointment with Stanton Investigations of L.A. The administrative assistant, Anna Goodwin, told me Abe and Elijah Stanton were still in Phoenix awaiting my call and would meet me at Starbucks the next morning. I’d never dealt with PIs before, so Leah offered to be my backup in case things “got rough.” Her words, not mine. I agreed though I got the distinct impression she was hoping a pair of Thomas Magnums would show up in a red Ferrari.
Leah, Nicoh—my backup-backup—and I arrived at Starbucks the following morning fifteen minutes early. Nicoh and I selected a corner seat on the covered outdoor patio while Leah grabbed beverages and snacks. I scoped the area but didn’t see any PI-types lurking, so I settled for nervously picking the corners of my notepad. I doubted I would be able to calm down enough to take any notes, but as a reporter, Leah felt it was crucial to carry props. Of course, I’d forced her to leave the tape recorder at home, so she settled for a small notepad like mine.
We also decided against divulging her occupation. I needed to get information out of these guys, not send them running.
Leah came out a short time later, laden with caffeinated beverages and goodies. I grumbled I wasn’t going to be able to eat, to which Leah smartly replied Nicoh would be more than happy to help me. Did I mention she’d already bought him his own maple scone? No wonder he was so incorrigible. And stocky. I was too nervous to chastise her, so I nibbled on the corner of my blueberry scone before Nicoh had the chance to claim it.
Minutes later, two ex-football player types entered the patio. Our PIs had arrived. Abe and Elijah Stanton were clearly brothers, both standing over 6 feet 3 inches, clad in black leather jackets, jeans and wayfarers, with the same angular features and sky-blue eyes. That was where the similarity ended.
Abe wore his tawny hair shorter with gelled spikes on the top—that whole Brad Pitt bedhead look guys claim they don’t spend hours in front of the mirror perfecting—a black t-shirt and black Doc Marten boots.
While Elijah’s hair fell to his shoulders in messy sun-bleached waves, the rest of him was anything but, with his immaculately-pressed button-down shirt that matched his eyes and expensive-looking loafers. Though I put them both in their early-to-mid thirties, it was up in the air as to which brother was the eldest. I looked over at Leah—who’d gone from an annoyingly tidy scone-eater to drooling mouth-breather—and kicked her as I rose from the table to greet them.
Fortunately, Leah collected herself as introductions were made and Nicoh gave them his sniff of approval. Though both stole glances at me when they thought I wasn’t looking—likely due to my resemblance to Victoria—Elijah quickly started things off, indicating their intention to keep the meeting informal by outlining the information they’d gathered at Victoria’s request and answering questions that surfaced as a result.
I was too antsy to tackle the tough stuff up front, so I asked them to give us a bit of background on themselves. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but it wasn’t their unabridged life history.
The Stanton brothers were born and raised in Salinas, California by a Highway Patrol officer and a high school history teacher. Like their father—a former college athlete—both excelled in football and were awarded full athletic scholarships, Abe first to the University of Southern California and Elijah two years later to my alma mater, UCLA. That cleared up my older vs. younger brother question.
Abe graduated with honors with a degree in Criminal Justice and immediately signed up for the Los Angeles Police Academy. After graduating from the academy six months later, he spent his requisite time on Metro patrol assignments, before competing for and being promoted to Police Detective.
Elijah, meanwhile, also graduated with honors with degrees in both Law and Business Administration but unlike his brother, struggled for direction for the first time in his life. Working as a clerk and research assistant in a top L.A. law firm had been interesting—and paid the bills—but didn’t inspire the passion in him he dreamed it would. He wasn’t afraid of hard work, and did enjoy the research, but couldn’t see himself becoming a barrister for the next forty years.
Around the same time, Abe had begun to fester over the never-ending stream of bureaucratic red tape he encountered on a daily basis. No matter how tirelessly he worked, his efforts were routinely quashed for political reasons. After a particularly difficult period, he came to the overwhelming realization that unless he made a change, he would forever face the inability to make the type of difference he envisioned.
The brothers had each reached crossroads. Both wanted to effect change and be in control of how they went about it. Even if they only managed to do in small pieces over time, it was better than being at the mercy of people with ulterior motives, standing by going through the motions or worse yet, doing nothing. After much discussion, they combined the best of their skills—Elijah’s knowledge of criminal justice anfd law enforcement and Abe’s of law, business and research—and started a private investigation firm.
Starting small, they got leads from their former workplaces—including Elijah’s law firm—and built their business on delivering thorough, consistent results in a professional, honest and timely manner.
The strong work ethic they’d learned from their parents, coupled with their tenacity and drive served them well. Within a short time, they had a steady flow of work—solely due to word of mouth—and their business thrived.
They splurged by opening a small office and hiring Anna, a former co-worker of Elijah’s, to handle all scheduling and billing and more frequently, to assist with research. It was a win-win situation. Anna loved the autonomy the brothers gave her to run the operation and they were free to work out in the field.
Meanwhile, Dad and Mom—now retired—couldn’t have been more proud of their sons. Of course, both expressed concern over their sons being more than 300 miles from home, though Abe and Elijah suspected both were making noise to cover their excitement. They would no longer need to make excuses for the additional trips to L.A.—their dad for his sporting events and mom for the surplus of shopping venues. We all laughed at the subterfuge.
I enjoyed Abe and Elijah’s sharing of their background so much, I’d almost forgotten the purpose of the meeting. I said almost.
“So, how did you come to be here in Phoenix?” I asked.
“Way to be a buzz-kill, Ajax,” Leah growled, loud enough for Abe and Elijah to hear.
Eyebrows lifted at my nickname, but Abe replied, “As Detective Ramirez mentioned, Victoria was our client. Two weeks ago, she left a voicemail indicating she was heading to Phoenix. It was the last time we heard from her. When she didn’t respond to any of our phone calls or texts, we hopped in the car. After we arrived, we stopped at the police precinct down in Central Phoenix, introduced ourselves as PIs and showed them Victoria’s picture.
“Ramirez must have been vigilant in circulating the details of the case—something about a bottle of thirty-year-old single malt—because no sooner had the words left our mouths, the desk sergeant supplied us with Ramirez’s contact information, height, weight, shoe size, favorite flavor of ice cream…” We all chuckled in unison.
Elijah continued, “We were also able to find out Ramirez got his caffeine fix around the same time each morning,” he glanced around, “at this Starbucks. So we took the opportunity to catch up with him.
“Of course, we still hadn’t received confirmation Victoria was dead—the chatty Cathy desk sergeant hadn’t managed to divulge that bit of information—though we already suspected something was up. I mean, if a Homicide detective is trading $1200 bottles of scotch for information, it can’t be good.
“Anyway, Ramirez was suspicious at first, but once we gave him the condensed version of our background”—he paused to smile at me as I realized I had erroneously made the comment about their life history out loud—“and shared our connection to Victoria, he told us of her murder.” Elijah looked away and Abe bowed his head, quietly studying his folded hands.
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, “she was more than a client—”
“She was a client,” Abe snarked, taking me by surprise.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply…” I stammered, as Leah shot me a terse look that told me to shut up.
“No apologies necessary, AJ,” Elijah said, his voice quiet. “What my brother means is Victoria was our client first. Working on a case like this, for as long as we have, you get to know someone, especially when she puts as much in as she gets. It’s hard not to care. So, yes, though we worked side by side as professionals, Victoria was more than our client. She’d become our friend.”
“How did Victoria find you in the first place?” Leah asked, quickly shifting the subject.
“We’d taken on several projects for Platinum International, the real estate firm where she was employed, and though we never worked with her directly, she was familiar with our work,” Elijah replied.
“Yeah, surprised the heck out of us.” Abe smiled at the memory. “She was the first client who actually made an appointment to meet us at our office. We hadn’t physically been there in months—Anna keeps things running smoothly—so we raced there to make sure everything was still in order. Of course, Victoria arrived ahead of us, and she and Anna were chatting away like old friends, in our meticulously-organized and tastefully-decorated office. And there sat Anna, with a coy, knowing smile.”
“She knew what the two of you were up to,” I commented with a light chuckle.
Abe, obviously no longer peeved at me, laughed. “She knew we’d come rushing to fix things, which meant we owed her a big fat raise for doubting her abilities.”
“Lesson learned?” Leah teased.
They both laughed and nodded before Elijah turned the conversation back to their meeting with Ramirez.
“Anyway, Ramirez seemed like a good guy—and though he told us he’d been removed from the case earlier that morning—we thought perhaps he could help.
“Ramirez might have mentioned this, but when Victoria first hired us six months ago, it was to look into your parent’s plane crash.” I nodded, so he continued, “Victoria’s story started before that, with the death of her parents, Joseph and Susan Winestone. You may have heard of them?”
We shook our heads. “No? Well, they made their fortune designing and building some of the most elite golf courses and resorts in the world—from California to Florida and Hawaii in the USA—to Australia, Scotland, Spain, etc.”
“Oh my, yes! I remember them now,” Leah exclaimed. “In fact, when they scouted locations in Arizona five years ago—” I kicked her hard before she inadvertently divulged she was a reporter. “Uh, I saw them being interviewed on the local news.” I smiled at her sweetly, to which she pinched me under the table. I didn’t dare look but was pretty sure she’d drawn blood.
If Abe or Elijah noticed our little squabble, they didn’t let on. Abe continued where his brother had left off, “Anyway, the Winestones were taking the new Jag out for a spin along the Pacific Coast Highway. At one point during their trip, between Malibu and Santa Monica, the car veered, crashed through the divider and tumbled down the embankment, killing them both instantly.”
“According to witnesses, the driver—Susan Winestone—never hit the brakes, nor appeared to be speeding. The crash investigators indicated the condition of that portion of the road had been good at the time of the accident—no potholes, dips, etc.—and the weather had been dry and clear. Technicians later confirmed the vehicle had no apparent defects.
“When Mrs. Winestone’s autopsy results were released, there were no indications of heart attack or stroke, and her blood work showed no signs she’d been impaired by drugs or alcohol.”
Abe took a deep breath and nodded at his brother, who continued, “However, that wasn’t the only thing her blood confirmed. It held another secret, as did Joseph Winestone’s. Her mother’s blood type was O and her father’s type B, but Victoria’s was type AB, meaning they didn’t match. Joseph and Susan Winestone couldn’t have been her birth parents.”
“My blood type is AB, too,” I whispered. Leah gave my hand a quick squeeze but motioned for Elijah to continue.
“Victoria was devastated, not only had she tragically lost her parents, but possibly her identity, as well. They had obviously not meant for her to find out she’d been adopted. Being the way she was, Victoria didn’t fault them for it. She simply believed they’d had their reasons and the best of intentions. Nevertheless, once she knew, she was determined to find out more about her background.
“Having been an only child, she had no other family to confide in, so she turned to her parent’s oldest friend, Sir Edward Harrington. Though he was known as Sir Edward to everyone else, Victoria insisted upon calling him Sir Harry from the time she was a toddler, despite her parent’s opposition.
“Anyway, upon their deaths, Sir Edward received a key from Joseph Winestone to a safety deposit box at a bank near his residence in London. The letter that accompanied the key was written in Mr. Winestone’s handwriting and instructed Sir Edward to review the contents and make his own decision with regard to their handling. He immediately called Victoria and encouraged her to come to London.”
“Did Sir Edward know about Victoria’s adoption beforehand?” I asked.
“That’s a good question. Victoria asked him the same thing.” Abe smiled. “Though the Winestones never directly discussed it with him, he guessed an adoption had taken place. They were very public people, and though there were months they would hunker down to work on a project, a pregnancy would not have gone unnoticed. No one said a word when little Victoria was finally spotted in public. Perhaps because of the era, or perhaps, like Sir Edward, people were happy the couple had something other than work to occupy their lives. As strange as it sounds, the adoption never came up.”
“Perhaps the wealthy do live charmed lives,” Leah remarked as I excused myself so I could take Nicoh for a quick walk. Poor baby hadn’t gotten much attention since introductions were made and had been dancing on the tips of his paws for at least fifteen minutes. He finished his business, and after I gave him some well-deserved scratches, we headed back to join the others.
Preoccupied with the conversation, I hadn’t realized how much the patio had filled in. We now had company on both sides: a couple bickering over wedding invites on the left and a guy wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks hat on the right similar to one my dad once owned, listening to his iPod while reading the paper.
I realized Abe and Elijah were laughing at Leah’s stories of our good old days in high school, so I quickly sat down and gave her the look, which made them laugh even harder. Great. That was the last time she was going to borrow my vintage 1950s cat-eye sunglasses, which coincidentally, were currently perched on top of her head. Would anyone notice if I suddenly snatched them?
Once the chuckles finally subsided and I decided to leave the sunglasses alone, I nodded at Elijah to continue.
“Victoria went to London to meet Sir Edward. Before opening the safety deposit box, he let her read the letter, in which Joseph Winestone came clean about the adoption. He and his wife had intended to have children, but work encompassed their lives. By the time they felt they could make a go of it, it was too late. Determined to have a family, they did the next best thing. They adopted.
“According to the letter, the box contained the documentation relating to the adoption and as promised, an overwhelming pile of paper was enclosed. The adoption had been arranged through the Sterling Joy Agency, a Chicago-based firm. Neither Sir Edward nor Victoria was familiar with the laws relating to adoptions, but it seemed the Winestones collected every tidbit of information they could find on the birth parents, including age, appearance, education, occupation, current relationship, reason for the adoption, etc., which is how they found out both were deceased.
The birth mother had died of complications following childbirth and the father…passed, a short time later.” Elijah swallowed hard. Clearly, something bothered him about that but before I could ask, he went on, “Fortunately, they had the foresight to make arrangements with an agency in the event of their deaths—likely because they had no living family—otherwise their children would have become wards of the state.
“Anyway, Victoria also found out about you. Under a section titled ‘Other Children Born to Birth Parents’, there was a single listing: ‘Female, one-month of age, born at the University of Chicago Medical Center’. Same birth location as was listed for Victoria, as well as her age at the time of her birth.
“This intrigued both Victoria and Sir Edward. Why hadn’t her parents adopted both children? They had wanted a family—this would have been the perfect solution. They found the answer further down in the papers.
Once the Winestones learned of the second child—you—they immediately contacted the agency. Though the agency sympathized, they claimed the birth parents had explicitly stated under no circumstances were the children to be adopted together. And, based upon the letters exchanged between Sterling Joy and the Winestones, it also became quite clear the agency had been paid handsomely to honor the birth parent’s last wishes.”
“That is strange,” Leah commented, before looking to me to gauge my reaction to this news. I wasn’t sure what my face showed, but I was astonished.
“There was one final surprise waiting on the bottom of the security deposit box. Five documents were bound together, almost symbolically. They included Victoria’s current birth certificate, her original birth certificate, your original birth certificate, your current birth certificate and your parent’s address.” My address.
“Oh, my gosh,” I gasped as I looked at Leah, flabbergasted, “that is totally insane. Do you think they contacted my parents—that my parents knew?”
“We don’t know, AJ,” Abe replied quietly, “and with the players deceased, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. It was this information, however, that prompted Victoria to search for you. And, it was at the beginning of this search she learned of your parent’s tragic accident. That’s when she hired us.”
Leah murmured absently, “Perhaps there’s another safety deposit box lurking around somewhere? One with more clues?”
“We’d thought of that too. It’s certainly something we can pursue,” Elijah replied, “but first, there’s a bit more we need to tell you.”
“Are you serious?” Leah squawked a bit too loudly, which made Nicoh moan like a moose.
I couldn’t blame him, I wanted to moan like a moose myself—this conversation was becoming more and more like the one with Ramirez. Abe and Elijah both apologized, but I told them to continue, so Abe picked up where Elijah had left off.
“When Victoria got back from London, she went to her parent’s house to check on things. On the answering machine, there was a message from someone at the dealership where her mother had purchased her Jaguar, apologizing for the mix-up and confirming she still wanted the original car. Victoria lost it.”
“What rock had this guy been living under?” Leah snarked.
“Victoria said she gave him an earful,” Abe replied. “The manager apologized profusely. He returned from a cruise vacation and wasn’t exactly sure how it happened, but in his absence, the assistant manager had delivered her mother’s custom-designed car to another client. Rather than disappoint that client, who had already fallen in love with the car, he immediately called Victoria’s mother to confess his oversight. As gracious as ever, she let the assistant manager off the hook and agreed to take the car until another could be ordered.”
“So, the car she was driving when the accident occurred wasn’t the car she should have been driving?” I asked.
“Nope,” Abe continued, “but that wasn’t the end of it.”
“Of course not,” I retorted, perhaps a bit too sarcastically, “why would it be?”
“What raised the red flags—and frankly, still raises the hair on the back our necks—was when Victoria asked to speak with the assistant manager.”
“The manager had already fired him?” Leah asked.
“He probably should have been fired, but no, it didn’t go down quite that way,” Abe replied. “He disappeared.”
“Well, perhaps that’s not such a loss,” I countered.
“No, probably not,” Abe agreed, “but when he went missing, so did all the other client’s paperwork.”
“As if that weren’t a flaming red flag,” Leah mused. This situation just kept getting better and better.
“So, is that something you’d still be willing to look into?” I asked, not even remotely familiar with the private investigator protocol, considering Victoria had originally hired them.
“Absolutely,” Abe and Elijah said at the same time. Unless I was mistaken, they almost seemed relieved I had asked. Perhaps my affirmation meant they had passed some sort of imaginary test?
“Well, I’m sure your brains are mush by now, we’ve covered so much stuff today.” Elijah smiled warmly. “Maybe now would be a good time to discuss where we go from here, if that’s what you’d like?”
Though I was pretty sure he was asking me, Leah nearly swooned as she burst out, “We definitely like.” I rewarded her by smacking her arm, which drew chuckles from Abe and Elijah and a serious unhappy-face from Leah.
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied as Leah feigned rubbing her injured limb, “but I’m not sure how we do this. Do we divide and conquer, or do you guys prefer to work solo?”
“Heck, no, we’ll take any help we can get, plus, we’ve got Anna too, who has pretty much already made this case her mission in life,” Abe commented.
“Wow,” was all I could muster. Victoria must have had as profound of an effect on Anna as she had on Abe and Elijah. In my opinion, they all seemed pretty loyal to the cause.
“So, if you are cool with it, here’s what we thought some of the next steps—or action items as we call them—could be,” Elijah said.
“Oooh, I like action items,” Leah cooed but toned her oozing enthusiasm down once she caught a glimpse of my I-will-smack-you-again look.
“As I was saying,” Elijah stifled another laugh, obviously enjoying our banter, “if you wouldn’t be opposed to it, it would be helpful if you could find out some more information about the adoption, about your biological parents, their backgrounds, etc. We’ll have Anna send you the documents Victoria brought back from the London safety deposit box.”
At my questioning look, he continued, “Victoria would have wanted you to have them. I know she would.” Elijah turned to his brother, who nodded in agreement.
I nodded back. “I can definitely do that. Plus, as the adoptee, it would probably be easier for me to obtain the information, without raising a ruckus.”
“Yeah, we’d prefer it if you limited the ruckus-raising. We wouldn’t want it to result in a brew-ha-ha, after all,” Abe teased. “Anyway, while you look into that, we’ll try to find out more about the dealership’s missing assistant manager and the client who took possession of Mrs. Winestone’s Jag.
“In addition, we’ll be tracking down whatever information Victoria found that led her to believe your parent’s plane crash was not an accident,” Elijah said. I had almost forgotten about the cryptic voicemail Victoria had left Abe and Elijah. Her last voicemail.
“She believed ‘bigger forces were at play’ that affected all of us,” I repeated from memory, my voice barely a whisper.
Elijah nodded. “We’re not stopping until we determine what those forces might be. Whatever they are, they killed Victoria.”
“Well, there’s good news and bad news.” Leah sighed as we walked to the parking lot several minutes later.
“Bad news first, as always,” I told her, though I wasn’t sure I was prepared for anymore.
“The bad news is they didn’t pull up in a red Ferrari.” She pouted, confirming my previous suspicions about the dual Magnum, PI fantasy. Stupefied, I could only shake my head.
“But, the good news is—it was black!” She squealed with delight.
More proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same. With the month I’d had so far, I guess I should have taken comfort in that.
He sat with his back to them. Arizona Diamondbacks baseball hat pulled low, eyes covered by dark aviator sunglasses.
Their conversation barely amused him.
What did intrigue him was the girl. She was a dead ringer for the other one. Perhaps she would be just as feisty.
He could hardly wait to find out.
After meeting with Abe and Elijah, all I wanted to do was take a nap. My brain hurt and I needed to put it into neutral for a while. Unfortunately, I had Charlie’s project to complete, preferably before he burst a gasket. I always carried photo equipment in the back of my Mini Cooper, so I dropped Leah off at her office and headed over to his condo in Tempe.
I wasn’t sure if his intention for showcasing the condo in the local home decor magazine was to sell it or to show it off—it was always a bit of a toss-up with Charlie—but my guess was the latter. Either way, the deadline for the winter edition was fast approaching, which had him chomping at the bit.
The editor offered to send one of her staff photographers over, but for as much of a braggart as Charlie was, he despised having people touch his stuff. After rebuking the idea of using one of the magazine’s photographers—huffily exclaiming he had one of his own—Charlie promptly texted me and demanded I contact the editor as soon as possible, or else.
I did but found myself apologizing to her for half an hour for Charlie’s rudeness before she agreed to send me the magazine’s specs. I continued to grovel and was granted three days to submit the photos, though I knew the deadline was at least twenty days out. Deciding not to press my luck, I thanked her profusely and hung up, feeling about as well-received as a piece of gum on the bottom of her Jimmy Choos.
Thankfully, I was on the short list of people he considered worthy of granting entry to his condo, though I was convinced his preference was to have me suit up like the forensics team on CSI. Fortunately, he settled for powder- and latex-free gloves and elasticized, non-static booties. Yeah, don’t even get me started. Of course, I was required to leave Nicoh with the doorman, who always had a few extra doggie treats handy.
Sufficiently geared up, I was ready to go in. The condo had an open floor plan—reminiscent of the lofts you might see in Manhattan—and was designed in an ultra-modern industrial style—lots of steel and glass. Charlie furnished it with more steel and glass, using only black, gray and an occasional splash of white to accent the space. It was kind of cool, in a very sterile, antiseptic way. Case in point, his floor was definitely cleaner than any plate in my house.
I was grateful Charlie couldn’t be present while I worked. His personal assistant, Arch, was there in his place to hawk-eye my every move. I actually preferred him to Charlie and found him fairly harmless, though I was pretty sure I spotted him snapping pictures of me with his iPhone. Whatever—I could deal with Arch.
I took several shots on both levels of the condo—the natural lighting was awesome—and was able to capture what I needed within a couple of hours. I packed my gear and shouted goodbye to Arch, though I knew he was lurking somewhere nearby. I collected Nicoh from the doorman, who had been receiving the royal treatment in my absence. Still, he trotted happily to the Mini and jumped into the passenger seat.
As we drove home, I suddenly realized how tired I was. Typically, Leah mused at my Energizer-bunny intensity, but the events of the day had drained me, both physically and emotionally. My mind hadn’t gotten the signal, there was so much to contemplate.
I decided to wait for the package from Abe and Elijah’s assistant, Anna, to begin my part of the research. Instead, I called Ramirez to give him an update, though I knew he wasn’t anticipating one. He must have been expecting another call because he answered on the first ring, but seemed genuinely pleased to hear from me and listened quietly as I filled him in on the meeting with Abe and Elijah.
Only when I finished did he speak, “How are you, AJ?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to digest and yet, I just want to sleep. Unfortunately, my mind won’t let me.”
“I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t have pushed you?”
“Hey, Victoria died trying to make contact with me. I owe it to her to figure this out, to finish it, whatever it is.”
Ramirez was silent for a moment then quietly said, “I’m here for you, AJ, day or night.”
“Jonah, please call me Jonah.”
“Thanks, Jonah. Have a good night.”
“You’re welcome, AJ. Sleep well.”
I appreciated the sentiment but doubted rest would come anytime soon. And yet, I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Links to Purchase Print Book version – Click links for book samples, reviews and to purchase
Buy Gemini Rising (Mischievous Malamute Series, Book 1) Print Edition at Amazon
Buy Gemini Rising (Mischievous Malamute Series, Book 1) at Barnes and Noble
Links to Purchase eBook version – Click links for book samples, reviews and to purchase
Buy this eBook On Amazon
Buy this eBook on Barnes and Noble for Nook
Buy this eBook on iBooks
Buy this eBook on Kobo
Buy this eBook on Smashwords
Buy this eBook on Google Play
About the Author
For joining the author’s email/newsletter list you will get:
All information was provided by the author and not edited by us. This is so you get to know the author better.