A Trace of Crime (a Keri Locke Mystery--Book #4) - Blake Pierce - ebook
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“A dynamic story line that grips from the first chapter and doesn't let go.”--Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan (regarding Once Gone)From #1 bestselling mystery author Blake Pierce comes a new masterpiece of psychological suspense.In A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4 in the Keri Locke mystery series), Keri Locke, Missing Persons Detective in the Homicide division of the LAPD, follows a fresh lead for her abducted daughter. She winds her way through a twisted underworld, and step by step, she gets closer to finding her daughter.Yet she has no time. Keri is assigned a new case: a dad calls from an affluent community and reports that his teen daughter vanished on the way home from school.Shortly after, ransom letters arrive. Twisted, filled with riddles, they make it clear that there is little time to save the girl. They also make it clear that this is the work of a diabolical killer who is toying with them.Keri and the police must scramble to find the kidnapper, to understand his demands, to decode the letters, and most of all, to outwit him. But in this master game of chess, Keri may find herself up against a foe even she cannot understand, and for the missing girl—and her own daughter—she may just be too late.A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, A TRACE OF CRIME is book #4 in a riveting new series—and a beloved new character—that will leave you turning pages late into the night.“A masterpiece of thriller and mystery! The author did a magnificent job developing characters with a psychological side that is so well described that we feel inside their minds, follow their fears and cheer for their success. The plot is very intelligent and will keep you entertained throughout the book. Full of twists, this book will keep you awake until the turn of the last page.”--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos (re Once Gone)Book #5 in the Keri Locke series will be available soon.

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A   T R A C E   O F   C R I M E

(A KERI LOCKE MYSTERY—BOOK 4)

B L A K E   P I E R C E

Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes eleven books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising eight books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising five books; and of the new KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising five books (and counting).

An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.

BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE

RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES

ONCE GONE (Book #1)

ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)

ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)

ONCE LURED (Book #4)

ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)

ONCE PINED (Book #6)

ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)

ONCE COLD (Book #8)

ONCE STALKED (Book #9)

ONCE LOST (Book #10)

ONCE BURIED (Book #11)

MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES

BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)

BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)

BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)

BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)

BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)

BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)

BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)

BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)

AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES

CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)

CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)

CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)

CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)

CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)

KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES

A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)

A TRACE OF MUDER (Book #2)

A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)

A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)

A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

PROLOGUE

Carolyn Rainey could sense something was wrong. It was hard to explain the feeling. But as she walked along the winding residential street to meet her twelve-year-old daughter, the skin on the back of her neck tingled.

On the surface, nothing was out of the ordinary. Carolyn always left the house around 2:30 to meet up with Jessica. She enjoyed the solitary, if brief, walk. It allowed her to clear her head for the second half of the day.

Playa del Rey Middle School let out at 2:35 and Jessica biked home every day. By the time she got everything from her locker into her backpack, made it to the bike rack, said goodbye to her friends, and got on the road, it was usually around 2:45.

Mother and daughter invariably met up at about the halfway point between the school and house around 2:50. Then they would return home together, Carolyn walking, Jessica biking slowly beside her, occasionally circling her mom playfully.

They would talk about the events of the day: who had a crush on whom, which teacher accidentally used a curse word, what song they were working on in choir. When they got home, there was always a snack waiting, after which Jessica would dive into her homework and Carolyn would get back to her own work. They had their routine and it was always the same, give or take a few minutes.

But Carolyn had been walking for close to a half hour now. It was almost 3 p.m. and she was nearly two-thirds of the way to the school. She should have run into Jessica by now.

Maybe her daughter had needed to go to the bathroom. Or maybe she had gotten caught up in a conversation with Kyle, the cute boy from her English class. But the tingling sensation on her neck told Carolyn that something else had happened.

When she rounded the next corner, she saw that she was right. Jessica’s purple bike, covered in stickers from the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie and photos of her favorite singers, Selena Gomez and Zara Larsson, was lying on its side, half on the sidewalk, half on the road.

She ran over to it and stared, frozen with fear. Looking around desperately, she caught a glimpse of something in the bushes of the nearest house. She hurried over and pulled at it. A branch snapped and the thing came loose.

She looked at it, almost unable to process what she was seeing. It was Jessica’s backpack. Carolyn dropped to her knees, her legs suddenly unsteady. Her heart pounded nearly out of her chest as the realization hit her: her daughter had vanished.

CHAPTER ONE

Detective Keri Locke was frustrated. She sat at her desk in LAPD’s West Los Angeles Pacific Division, studying the computer screen in front of her.

All around her, the station was bustling. Two teenagers who had snatched a purse and tried to escape on skateboards were being booked. An elderly man was seated at a nearby desk, explaining to a patient officer how someone took his morning paper every day before he could get outside to collect it. Two chubby guys were handcuffed on benches at opposite ends of the holding area because they’d gotten into a mid-afternoon bar fight and still wanted to go at it. Keri ignored them all.

For the last twenty minutes, she’d been poring over every post in the “strictly platonic” section of the Los Angeles Craigslist. It was the same thing she’d done every day for the last six weeks when her friend, newspaper columnist Margaret “Mags” Merrywether, had given her a tip she hoped would help her find her missing daughter, Evie.

Evie had been abducted over five years ago. But after relentless, mostly fruitless searching, Keri had finally found her, only to have her ripped away again. The memory of seeing Evie being driven away in a black van, turning a corner and disappearing from sight, perhaps forever, was too much. She shook the thought from her head and refocused on what was in front of her. After all, it was a lead. And she desperately needed a lead.

It was in late November when Mags had reached out to a shadowy figure known only as the Black Widower. He was a fixer, legendary for doing the dirty work of the rich and powerful, whether that was assassinating political enemies, making troublesome reporters disappear, or stealing sensitive material.

In this case, Keri suspected that he either had her daughter or at least knew her location. That was because just six weeks ago, Keri had tracked down the man who had abducted Evie all those years ago. He was a professional kidnapper known as the Collector. Keri had learned that his real name was Brian Wickwire after she killed him in a life-or-death struggle.

Using information she later found in Wickwire’s apartment, Keri had been able to piece together Evie’s location. She’d gone there just in time to see an older man forcing the girl into a black van. She had called out and even locked eyes with her daughter, now thirteen. She had actually heard Evie say the word “Mommy.”

But the man rammed Keri’s car with the van and escaped. Dazed and unable to follow, she’d been forced to watch helplessly as her daughter disappeared from her sight a second time. Later that night, she’d been told that the van had been found in an empty parking lot. The older man had been shot in the head execution style. Evie was gone.

For several weeks after, the department had run down every lead, shaken every tree in search of her daughter. But they were all dead ends. And without any evidence to go on, the team eventually had to pursue other cases.

Ultimately it was Mags, who looked like a cover model for Southern Socialite magazine but was actually a tough-as-nails investigative reporter, who had provided a new lead. She told Keri that the situation with Evie reminded her of someone she had investigated years ago called the Black Widower. He was notorious for double taps in parking lots late at night. He was known to drive a Lincoln Continental without plates, which had been visible in the parking lot surveillance footage where the black van was found.

And it was Mags who, using a tip from a confidential source and writing anonymously, had reached out to him using the seemingly outdated Craigslist message board. It was apparently how he liked to communicate with potential new clients.

And to her amazement, he’d responded almost immediately. He said that he’d be in touch and would soon ask her to create a new email address so they could communicate confidentially.

Unfortunately, after that initial communication, he’d gone dark. Mags had reached out a second time about three weeks ago but hadn’t heard anything back. Keri wanted her to try again but Mags insisted it was a bad idea. Pressuring this guy would only make him go to ground. As frustrating as it was, they had to wait for him to reach out again.

But Keri was worried it would never happen. And as she scoured the “strictly platonic” board for the third time today, she couldn’t help think that what had once seemed like such a promising lead might just be another devastating dead end.

She closed the window on her screen and shut her eyes as she took several deep breaths. Trying not to let hopelessness overwhelm her, she allowed her mind to drift wherever it wanted. Sometimes it took her to unexpected, revealing places that helped unlock puzzles she thought were beyond her.

What am I missing? There’s always a clue. I just have to recognize it when I see it.

But it didn’t work this time. Her brain kept circling around the idea of the Black Widower, untraceable and unknowable.

Of course, at one time she had thought that same thing about the Collector too. And despite that, she had been able to track him down, kill him, and use information in his apartment to discover her daughter’s location. If she did it once, she could do it again.

Maybe I need to review the Collector’s emails again or go back through his apartment. Maybe I missed something the first time because I didn’t know what to look for.

It occurred to her that both men—the Collector and the Black Widower—operated in the same world. They were both professional criminals for hire—one a child abductor, the other a killer. It didn’t seem impossible that their paths might have crossed at some point. Maybe the Collector had a record of that somewhere.

And then she realized there was one other piece of connective tissue. They both had links to the same man, a well-heeled downtown lawyer named Jackson Cave.

To most people, Cave was a prominent corporate attorney. But Keri knew him as a shady dealmaker who represented the dregs of society, was secretly involved in everything from sex slave rings to drug trafficking operations to outright murder for hire. Unfortunately, she couldn’t prove any of that without revealing some secrets of her own.

But even without proof, she was certain that Cave was involved with both men. And if that was the case, maybe they had interacted. It wasn’t much. But it was something to follow up on. And she needed something, anything, to keep her from going crazy.

She was about to go to the evidence room to look through Wickwire’s stuff again when her partner, Detective Ray Sands, walked over.

“I ran into Lieutenant Hillman in the break room,” he said. “He just got a call and he’s assigned us a case. I can give you the details on the drive over. Are you okay to head out? You look like you’re in the middle of something.”

“Just some research,” she answered, locking the screen, “nothing that can’t wait. Let’s go.”

Ray looked at her curiously. She knew he was fully aware that she wasn’t being completely straight with him. But he said nothing as she stood up and led the way out of the station.

*

Keri and Ray were members of West Los Angeles Division’s Missing Persons Unit. It was generally regarded as the best in all of the LAPD and they were the two major reasons why. They had solved more cases in the last eighteen months than most entire divisions had in double that time.

It was also true that Keri was viewed as a loose cannon who could create as many problems as she solved. In fact, she was currently technically under investigation by Internal Affairs for how the Collector confrontation had gone down. Everyone kept telling her it was only a formality. And yet it hovered over her, like a rain cloud always threatening to open up.

Still, despite the corners they sometime cut, no one could question their results. Ray and Keri were the best of the best, even if they were going through a few personal hiccups these days.

Keri chose not to think about that as Ray walked her through the case details on the drive over to the scene. She couldn’t handle focusing on both a missing persons case and her complicated relationship with Ray at the same time. In fact, she had to look out the window to avoid focusing on his strong, dark forearms gripping the steering wheel.

“The potential victim is Jessica Rainey,” Ray said. “She’s twelve and lives in Playa del Rey. The mom typically meets her on her bike ride home from school. Today she found the bike lying at the edge of the street and her backpack shoved in a bush nearby.”

“Do we know anything about the parents?” Keri asked as they barreled down Culver Boulevard in the direction of the seaside community, where she also happened to live. Often parental estrangement was a determining factor. A good half of their missing child cases involved one parent kidnapping the kid.

“Not much yet,” Ray said as he weaved through traffic. It was early January and cold out but Keri noticed beads of sweat trickling down Ray’s bald head as he drove. He seemed nervous about something. Before she could pursue it, he went on.

“They’re married. Mom works at home. She designs ‘artisanal’ wedding invitations. Dad works in Silicon Beach, for a tech company. They have a younger child, a six-year-old boy. He’s in his school’s aftercare today. The mom checked and he’s there, safe and sound. Hillman told her to leave him there for now, so his day can stay normal for as long as possible.”

“Not much to go on,” Keri noted. “Is CSU on the way?”

“Yeah, Hillman sent them at the same time as us. They may already be there, hopefully processing the bike and backpack for prints.”

Ray zipped past the intersection with Jefferson Boulevard. Keri could almost see her apartment in the distance now. The ocean was only half a mile beyond that. The Rainey home was in a separate, fancier section of the community, on a big hill with multimillion-dollar homes. They were less than five minutes away.

Keri noticed that Ray had become unusually quiet. She could tell he was working up the courage to say something. She couldn’t explain why but she dreaded it.

She and Ray Sands had known each other for over seven years, back before Evie had been abducted, when she was a criminology professor at Loyola Marymount University and he was the local detective who’d been volunteered by his boss to talk to her class.

After Evie was taken and Keri’s life had fallen apart, he’d been there both as a detective working the case and as a supportive friend. He was there for her during her divorce and her career meltdown. It was Ray who had convinced her to join the force. And when she came to West LA division after two years as a street officer, she became his partner in the Missing Persons Unit.

Somewhere along the line, their relationship had gotten closer. Maybe it was partly all the playful flirting. Maybe it was the fact that they’d each saved the other’s life multiple times. Maybe it was partly simple attraction. She’d even noticed that Ray, a notorious ladies’ man, had stopped mentioning other women, even in jest.

Whatever it was, in the last few months, they’d spent a lot of time hanging out at each other’s place after work, going to restaurants together, calling each other for non-work conversations. It was like they were a couple in all ways but one. They’d never made that final leap to consummate their connection. Hell, they’d never even kissed.

So why am I dreading what I think he’s about to say?

Keri loved spending time with Ray and a part of her wanted to take things to the next level. She felt so close to the man that it was almost weird that nothing had happened. And yet, for reasons she couldn’t find words for, she feared taking that next step. And she could feel Ray about to cross the threshold.

“Can I ask you something?” he said as he turned left off Culver onto Pershing Drive, the snaking road that led up to the wealthiest part of Playa del Rey.

“I guess.”

No. Please no. You’re going to ruin everything.

“I feel closer to you than anyone else in the world,” he said softly. “And I get the sense that you feel the same way toward me. Am I right?”

“Yes.”

We’re almost to the house. Just drive a little faster so I can get out of this car.

“But we haven’t done anything about that,” he said.

“I guess not,” she agreed, unsure what else to say.

“I want to change that.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So I’m officially asking you out on a date, Keri. I’d like to take you out this weekend. Would you like to go to dinner with me?”

There was a long pause before she responded. When she opened her mouth, she wasn’t entirely sure what would come out.

“I don’t think so, Ray. Thanks though.”

Ray sat in the driver’s seat, his eyes straight ahead, his mouth agape, saying nothing.

Keri, also stunned at her own response, stayed silent as well and fought the urge to jump out of the moving car.

CHAPTER TWO

Without another word between them, they turned right off Pershing Drive onto the steep incline of Rees Street and then left onto Ridge Avenue. Keri saw the Crime Scene Unit truck in front of a big house at the top of the hill.

“I see the CSU truck,” she said dumbly, just to break the silence.

Ray nodded and pulled up behind it. They got out and headed for the house. Keri fiddled with her gun belt to allow Ray to get ahead of her a bit. She could sense he wasn’t in the mood to walk side by side.

As she followed him down the walk to the front door, she once again marveled at the sheer physical specimen he was. Ray was a six-foot-four, 230-pound, bald, forty-one-year-old African-American former professional boxer.

Despite the challenges he’d faced since retiring from the sport, including a divorce, getting a glass eye, and being shot, he still looked like he could step into the ring. He was muscular but not heavy, with a lithe agility unexpected for a man his size. There was a reason he was so popular with women.

A few months ago, she might have wondered why he’d be into her. But lately, despite nearing her thirty-sixth birthday, she’d recaptured some of the youthful zest that had made her pretty popular herself.

She would never be a supermodel. But since she’d resumed Krav Maga and cut down on the drinking, she had lost almost ten pounds. She was back to her pre-divorce fighting weight of 125, which looked pretty darned good on her five-foot-six frame. The bags under her eyes had disappeared and she occasionally wore her dirty blonde hair down instead of in her usual ponytail. She was feeling good about herself these days. So why had she said no to the date?

Deal with your personal issues later, Keri. Focus on your job. Focus on the case.

She forced all extraneous thoughts out of her head and glanced around as they approached the house, trying to get a sense of the Raineys’ world.

 Playa del Rey wasn’t a large neighborhood but the social divisions were quite stark. Down near where Keri lived, in an apartment above a cheap Chinese restaurant, most folks were working class.

The same was true of the small residential streets heading inland off Manchester Avenue. They were almost all populated by the residents of huge condominium and apartment complexes. But closer to the beach, and on the large hill where the Raineys lived, the homes varied from big to massive, and almost all of them had ocean views.

This house was somewhere in between big and massive, not truly a mansion, but as close as one could get without the protective outer wall and the huge pillars. Despite that, it felt like a genuine home.

The grass on the front lawn was a little long and it was littered with toys, including a plastic slide and a tricycle that was currently lying upside down. The path they took to reach the house was covered in colored chalk designs, some clearly the work of a six-year-old. Other sections were more sophisticated, done by a preteen.

Ray rang the bell and stared straight at the peephole, refusing to glance over at Keri. She could feel the frustration and confusion emanating from him and chose to stay quiet. She didn’t know what to say anyway.

Keri heard the rapid footsteps of someone running to the door and seconds later it opened to reveal a woman in her late thirties. She was dressed in slacks and a casual but professional top. She had short dark hair and was attractive in a pleasant, open-faced way that even her tear-stained eyes couldn’t hide.

“Mrs. Rainey?” Keri asked in her most reassuring voice.

“Yes. Are you the detectives?” she asked pleadingly.

“We are,” Keri answered. “I’m Keri Locke and this is my partner, Ray Sands. May we come in?”

“Of course. Please. My husband, Tim, is upstairs gathering pictures of Jess. He’ll be down in a minute. Do you know anything yet?”

“Not yet,” Ray said. “But I see our crime scene unit has arrived. Where are they?”

“In the garage—they’re checking Jess’s things for fingerprints. One of them told me I shouldn’t have moved them from where I found them. But I was afraid to just leave them on the street. What if they were stolen and we lost any evidence?”

As she spoke, her voice got higher and the words started tumbling out at a frenzied pace. Keri could tell she was barely holding it together.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Rainey,” she assured her. “CSU will still be able to get any potential prints and you can show us where you found her things later.”

Just then they heard footsteps and turned to see a man walking down the stairs holding a stack of photos. Skinny, with a bird’s nest of unruly brown hair and thin wire-rimmed glasses, Tim Rainey wore khakis and a button-down shirt. He looked exactly as Keri imagined a tech industry executive would.

“Tim,” his wife said, “these are the detectives here to help find Jess.”

“Thank you for coming,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.

Keri and Ray shook his hand and she noticed that the other hand holding the pictures was shaking slightly. His eyes weren’t red like his wife’s but his brow was furrowed and his whole face looked pinched. He seemed like a man overwhelmed by the stress of the moment. Keri couldn’t blame him. After all, she’d been there.

“Why don’t we all sit down and you can tell us what you know,” she said, noting that his knees seemed close to buckling.

Carolyn Rainey led them all to the front sitting room where her husband dropped the pictures on a coffee table and slumped heavily onto a couch. She sat beside him and put her hand on his knee, which was bouncing up and down wildly. He got the message and sat still.

“I was walking to meet Jess after school,” Carolyn began. “We have the same routine every day. I walk. She rides her bike. We meet up somewhere in between and come back together. We almost always connect around the same spot, give or take a block.”

Tim Rainey’s knee started bouncing again and she gave him a gentle pat to remind him to collect himself. Once again, he stilled. She continued.

“I started to worry when I got two-thirds of the way to school and hadn’t seen her. That’s only happened twice before. Once was because she forgot a textbook in her locker and had to go back. The other time she had a bad stomachache. Both times she called me to let me know what was going on.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Ray said. “But can you give me her cell number? We might be able to trace it.”

“I thought of that first thing. In fact, I called her as soon as I saw her stuff. It started ringing right away. I found it under the same bush her backpack was in.”

“Do you have it now?” Keri asked. “There might still be valuable data to gather from it.”

“The crime scene people are dusting it too.”

“That’s great,” Keri said. “We’ll look at it when they’re done. Let’s go through a few basic questions if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Carolyn Rainey said.

“Had Jessica mentioned anything recently about having a falling out with a friend?”

“No. She did change who she had a crush on recently. School just started up again this week after winter break and she said the time off had made her see things differently. But since the first boy never even knew she liked him, I don’t think that matters.”

“Still, if you could write down both their names, it would be helpful,” Ray said. “Did she ever mention seeing any unusual people either at school or on her way there or home?”

The Raineys both shook their heads.

“May I?” Keri asked, pointing to the photos on the table.

Carolyn nodded. Keri picked up the stack and began to go through them. Jessica Rainey was a perfectly normal-looking twelve-year-old girl with a broad smile, her mother’s twinkly eyes, and her father’s wild brown hair.

“We’re going to follow every possible lead,” Ray assured them. “But I don’t want you to jump to any conclusions just yet. There’s still a chance that this is just a misunderstanding of some sort. We haven’t had a report of an abducted child in this community in well over two years, so we don’t want to make any assumptions at this point.”

“I appreciate that,” Carolyn Rainey said. “But Jess isn’t the sort of girl to just run off to a friend’s and leave all her stuff lying by the side of the street. And she would never willingly part with her phone. It’s just not her.”

Ray didn’t reply. Keri knew he had felt obligated to suggest other possibilities. And he was usually far less likely to leap to the abduction theory than Keri. But even he was having trouble coming up with legitimate reasons why Jessica would abandon all her things.

“Is it okay if we take a few of these photos?” she asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “We want to circulate them among law enforcement.”

“Of course. Take them all if you want,” Carolyn said.

“Not all,” Tim said, pulling one out of the pile. It was the first time he’d spoken since they all sat down. “I’d like to hold on to this one if you can do without it.”

It was a photo of Jessica in the woods wearing hiking gear, with a way-too-big-for-her backpack strapped to her back. Her face was smeared with what looked like war paint and she had a rainbow bandanna tied around her head. She was grinning happily. It wouldn’t help much for identification purposes. And even if it had, Keri could tell it was very special to him.

“Keep it. We’ve got more than enough,” she said softly before getting down to business. “Now there are a few things we are going to need from you and all of it in short order. You may want to write this down. In situations like this, time is crucial so we may have to sacrifice your feelings for information. Are you two okay with that?”

They both nodded.

“Good,” she said before diving in. “So here’s what’s going to happen. Mrs. Rainey, we’re going to need you to show us the route you took to meet your daughter and her usual route from that point to the school. We’re going to want to look through her room, including any computers or tablets she might have. As I mentioned, we’ll also look through her phone when CSU is done with it.”

“Okay,” Mrs. Rainey said, writing it all down as Keri continued.

“We’ll need the contact information for every friend you can think of and any kids she might have had issues with during the last year. We’ll need the principal’s number. We can get teacher and guidance counselor contact information from the school. But if you already have it, that would be great.”

“We can get you all that,” Carolyn promised them.

“We’ll also need the names and numbers of any coaches or tutors she has,” Ray added, “as well as those names of both the boys she was crushing on. Detective Locke and I will split up to maximize time.”

Keri looked at him. His voice sounded completely normal but she could tell that there was more than simple professional expediency at work.

Don’t take it personally. It’s a good idea.

“Yes,” she agreed. “Why don’t Mrs. Rainey and I walk the route to school before it gets too dark out? At this time of year, the sun will be setting in less than an hour. You can give me those contact numbers on the way.”

“And Mr. Rainey,” Ray said, “you can show me Jessica’s room. After that, I recommend you go get your son. What’s his name?”

“Nathaniel. Nate.”

“Okay, well, CSU will be gone by the time you get back so there won’t be so many people around. You’re going to want to try to keep things as normal as possible for him. That way, if we need to ask him questions, he won’t shut down.”

Tim Rainey nodded absently, as if he’d only just remembered he had a son as well. Ray continued.

“When you go, I’ll head over to the school to talk to the folks there. We’ll also check to see if there’s any video that can be helpful. Mrs. Rainey, I’ll meet you and Detective Locke at the school and drive you back home.”

“Are you going to put out an Amber Alert?” Carolyn Rainey asked, referring to the abduction messages sent out to the general public.

“Not yet,” Ray said. “It’s very possible that we’ll do that soon, but not until we have more information to share. We just don’t know enough yet.”

“Let’s get moving,” Keri said. “The more quickly we check off all these boxes, the better picture we’ll have of what might have happened.”

They all stood up. Carolyn Rainey grabbed her purse and led them to the front door.

“I’ll let you know if we learn anything,” she said to her husband as she gave him a kiss on the cheek. He nodded, then pulled her in for a long, tight hug.

Keri glanced over at Ray, who was watching the couple. Despite himself, he glanced over at her. She could still see the hurt in his eyes.

“I’ll call you when we get to the school,” Keri said quietly to Ray. He nodded without replying.

She felt stung by his coldness but she got it. He had opened up and taken a big risk. And she had shut him down without explanation. It was probably good that they had some space for the next little while.

As the two women stepped outside and began to walk away from the house, one thought reverberated in her head.

I have screwed up massively.

CHAPTER THREE

Ninety minutes later, back at her desk, Keri let out a sigh of deep frustration. Most of the last hour and a half had been fruitless.

They hadn’t found anything unusual on the walk to the school and didn’t come across any obvious signs of struggle. There were no odd tire marks near the spot where Mrs. Rainey had found Jessica’s stuff. Keri had stopped at every house nearby to determine if any residents had street-facing video cameras that might be of use. None did.

When they got to the school, Ray was already there talking to the principal, who promised to send out an email blast to all school parents asking for any information they might have. The security officer had all the surveillance footage from the day queued up so Keri suggested Ray stick around and view it while she got Mrs. Rainey back home and returned to the office to call all the potential leads.

To Carolyn Rainey, it must have simply looked like two partners effectively multi-tasking. And to a degree, it was. But the thought of sitting awkwardly in the passenger seat as Ray drove her back to West LA division was something she wasn’t up for right now.

So instead, they got a Lyft back to the Rainey house and Keri continued to the station from there. That’s where she’d spent the last half hour calling all Jessica’s friends and classmates. No one had anything unusual to share. Three friends all remembered her leaving school on her bike and waving to them as she left the parking lot. Everything seemed fine.

She called both the boys Jessica had crushes on in recent weeks and while both knew who she was, neither seemed to know her well or even be aware of how she felt. Keri wasn’t shocked at that. She remembered that at that age, she’d filled up whole notebooks with the names of boys she liked, without ever actually speaking to them.

She spoke to, or left messages with, all of Jessica’s teachers, her softball coach, her math tutor, and even the head of the neighborhood watch group. No one she reached knew anything.

She called Ray, who picked up on the first ring.

“Sands.”

“I’ve got nothing here,” she said, deciding to focus solely on the matter at hand. “No one saw anything out of the ordinary. Her friends say everything seemed fine when she left school. I’m still waiting for some calls back but I’m not optimistic. You having better luck?”

“Not so far. The video camera range only extends to the end of the school’s block in each direction. I can see her saying goodbye to her friends, just as you describe, then biking off. Nothing happens while she’s visible. I’m having the guard queue up footage from earlier in the week to see if there was anyone loitering around on prior days. It might be a while.”

Unspoken in that last line was the assumption he wouldn’t be returning to the station anytime soon. She pretended not to notice.

“I think we should post the Amber Alert,” she said. “It’s six p.m. now. So it’s been three hours since her mom called nine-one-one. We don’t have any evidence suggesting this is anything other than an abduction. If she was taken right after school, between two forty-five and three p.m., she could be as far as Palm Springs or San Diego by now. We need to get as many eyes on this as possible.”

“Agreed,” Ray said. “Can you honcho that so I can keep reviewing this footage?”

“Of course. Are you coming back to the station afterward?”

“I don’t know,” he answered noncommittally. “Depends on what I find.”

“Okay, well, keep me posted,” she said.

“Will do,” he replied and hung up without saying goodbye.

Keri ordered herself not to focus on the perceived slight and put her attention into preparing the Amber Alert and getting it out. As she was finishing up, she saw her boss, Lieutenant Cole Hillman, walking toward his office.

He was wearing his usual uniform of slacks, sport coat, loose tie, and short-sleeved dress shirt that he couldn’t keep tucked in because of his ample girth. He was a little over fifty but the job had aged him so that there were deep lines in his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. His salt-and-pepper hair was more salt than pepper these days.

She thought he was going to come over to her desk and demand a status update but he never even looked in her direction. That was fine with her, as she wanted to check with the CSU folks to see of they’d found any prints.

After she submitted the Amber Alert, Keri walked though station bullpen, which was unusually quiet for this time of night, and down the hall. She knocked on the CSU door and poked her head in without waiting for permission.

“Any luck on the Jessica Rainey case?”

The clerk, a twenty-something girl with dark hair and glasses, looked up from the magazine she’d been reading. Keri didn’t recognize her. The CSU clerk job was a grind and had a lot of turnover. She typed the name in the database.

“Nothing from the backpack or bike,” the girl said. “They’re still checking a few prints from the phone but the way they were talking, it didn’t sound promising.”

“Can you please have them let Detective Keri Locke know as soon as they’re done, regardless of the result? Even if there are no usable prints, I need to check that phone.”

“You got it, Detective,” she said, burying her nose back in the magazine before Keri had even closed the door.

Standing alone in the quiet hallway, Keri took a deep breath and realized there was nothing else for her to do. Ray was checking the school surveillance footage. She had put out the Amber Alert. The CSU report was pending and she couldn’t look at Jessica’s phone until they were done with it. She’d either spoken to or was waiting to hear back from everyone she had called.

She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, allowing her brain to relax for the first time in hours. But as soon as she did, unwelcome thoughts flooded in.

She saw the image of Ray’s face, hurt and confused. She saw a black van with her daughter inside rounding a corner into darkness. She saw the eyes of the Collector as she squeezed his neck, draining the life out of the man who’d abducted her daughter over five years ago, even as he was already dying from a head wound. She saw grainy footage of a man known only as the Black Widower as he shot another man in the head, took Evie from the man’s van, and shoved her into the trunk of his own car before disappearing forever.

Her eyes snapped open and she saw that she was facing the evidence room. She’d been in there many times in recent weeks, poring over photos from Brian “The Collector” Wickwire’s apartment.

The actual evidence was held at Downtown Division because his apartment was in their jurisdiction. They had consented to let the West LA police photographer take pictures of everything as long as it stayed in the evidence room. As she had killed the man, Keri wasn’t in a position to argue with them.

But she hadn’t gone through the photos in several days and now something about them was eating at her. There was an itch at the edge of her brain that she just couldn’t scratch, some kind of connection she knew was hiding just out of the corner of her consciousness. She walked into the room.