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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. A TRACE OF HOPE is the final book in the Keri Locke series, bringing the series to a dramatic conclusion.In A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5 in the Keri Locke mystery series), Keri Locke, Missing Persons Detective in the Homicide division of the LAPD, is closer than she’s ever been to finding her daughter. Finally, she gets a fresh lead—and this time, she will do whatever it takes to bring her home alive.At the same time, a new, urgent case is assigned to Keri: an 18 year old girl has gone missing after being hazed by her sorority. As the race is on to find her, Keri plunges deep into the world of pristine college campuses, and comes to realize that all is not what it seems.A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, A TRACE OF HOPE is book #5 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)
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A T R A C E O F H O P E
(A KERI LOCKE MYSTERY—BOOK 5)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes twelve 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 six books; and of the KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising four 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.
Copyright © 2018 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Coka, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
THE MAKING OF RILEY PAIGE SERIES
WATCHING (Book #1)
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)
ONCE BOUND (Book #12)
ONCE TRAPPED (Book #13)
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)
BEFORE HE PREYS (Book #9)
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)
CAUSE TO DREAD (Book #6)
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)
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
When Detective Keri Locke opened her eyes, she immediately knew something was off. First of all, she didn’t feel as if she had been asleep for long. Her heart was racing and she felt clammy all over. It was more like she’d passed out than been sleeping for a long time.
Second, she wasn’t in bed. Instead, she was flat on her back on the couch in her apartment living room and Detective Ray Sands, her partner and, as of late, her boyfriend, was leaning over her with a concerned expression on his face.
She tried to speak, to ask him what was wrong, but her mouth was dry and nothing came out but a hoarse crack. She couldn’t remember how she got here or what had happened before she lost consciousness. But it must have been something huge for her to react that way.
She saw in Ray’s eyes that he wasn’t sure what to say. That wasn’t like him. He wasn’t one to beat around the bush. A six-foot-four African-American LAPD cop and former professional boxer who’d lost his left eye in a fight, he was direct in almost everything he did.
Keri tried to push up on her arms to get to a more elevated position but Ray stopped her, gently resting a hand on her shoulder and shaking his head.
“Give yourself a moment,” he said. “You still look a little unsteady.”
“How long was I out?” Keri croaked.
“Not quite a minute,” he answered.
“Why was I out?” she asked.
Ray’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to reply but stopped, clearly at a loss.
“What is it?”
“You don’t remember?” he asked incredulously.
Keri shook her head. She thought she heard a buzzing in her ears but then realized that it was another voice. She glanced over to the coffee table and saw her phone resting there. It was on and someone was speaking.
“Who’s on the phone?” she asked.
“Oh, you dropped it when you collapsed and I put it there until I could revive you.”
“Who is it?” Keri asked again, noting that he had avoided her question.
“It’s Susan,” he said reluctantly. “Susan Granger.”
Susan Granger was a fifteen-year-old prostitute whom Keri had rescued from her pimp last year and gotten placed in a girls’ home. Since then, the two had become close, with Keri acting as a kind of mentor for the damaged but spirited young girl.
“Why is Susan calli—?”
And then the memory hit her like a wave crashing down on her entire body. Susan had called to tell Keri that her own daughter, Evie, who had been abducted six years ago, was to be the central participant in a grotesque ceremony.
Susan had learned that tomorrow night at a house somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Evie was going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, who would be allowed to have his way with her sexually before killing her in some sort of ritualistic sacrifice.
That’s why I passed out.
“Hand me the phone,” she ordered Ray.
“I’m not sure you’re up for this yet,” he said, obviously sensing that she could now remember everything.
“Give me the goddamn phone, Ray.”
He handed it over without another word.
“Susan, are you still there?” she said.
“What happened?” Susan demanded, her voice borderline panicky. “One minute you were there and then nothing. I could hear something happening but you didn’t answer.”
“I passed out,” Keri admitted. “It took me a moment to regroup.”
“Oh,” Susan said quietly. “I’m sorry I did that to you.”
“It’s not your fault, Susan. I was just taken by surprise. It’s a lot to process at once, especially when I’m not feeling a hundred percent.”
“How are you doing?” Susan asked, the concern in her voice almost palpable.
She was referring to Keri’s injuries, sustained in a life-and-death fight with a child abductor only two days ago. She had only been released from the hospital yesterday morning.
The doctors had determined that the bruises on her face, where the abductor had punched her twice, along with a badly bruised chest and swollen knee, weren’t enough to keep her another day.
The abductor, a deranged zealot named Jason Petrossian, had gotten the worst of it. He was still hospitalized under armed guard. The girl he’d kidnapped, twelve-year-old Jessica Rainey, was recovering at home with her family.
“I’ll be okay,” Keri said reassuringly. “Just some bumps and bruises. I’m glad you called, Susan. No matter how bad the news, knowing this is better than not knowing. Now I can try to do something about it.”
“What can you do, Detective Locke?” Susan said, her voice rising as the words tumbled out of her. “Like I said, I know Evie is the Blood Prize at the Vista. But I don’t where it’s happening.”
“Slow down, Susan,” Keri said firmly as she pulled herself to a sitting position. Her head felt a little dizzy and she didn’t protest as Ray put a steadying hand on her back as he sat down beside her on the couch. “We’ll figure out how to find her. But first I need you to tell me everything you know about this whole Vista thing. Don’t worry about repeating yourself. I want every detail you can recall.”
“Are you sure?” Susan asked hesitantly.
“Don’t worry. I’m okay now. I just needed a moment to take all this in. But I’m a Missing Persons detective. This is what I do. Just because I’m looking for my own daughter doesn’t change the job. So tell me everything.”
She pushed the speakerphone button so Ray could listen too.
“Okay,” Susan said. “As I told you before, there’s a club of rich johns who have pop-up sex parties in the Hollywood Hills. They call them Hill House Parties. The house is filled with girls, almost all underage prostitutes like I was. They usually have them every few months and most of the time, they only give a few hours’ notice, usually via text. Am I making sense?”
“Absolutely,” Keri said. “I remember you telling me about this. So remind me about the Vista event.”
“The Vista is like their biggest party of all. It only happens once a year and no one knows when. They like to give a little more notice for that one because no one wants to miss it. That’s probably why my friend heard about it already even though it’s not until tomorrow night.”
“And the Vista is different from the other Hill House Parties, right?” Keri prodded, knowing Susan was reluctant to revisit the particulars and giving her permission to do it.
“Yeah. At all the other parties, the john pays for whatever girl he likes and just does whatever he wants with her. Guys can be with anyone they want and a girl can be used all night by anyone. But the Vista is different. On that night the organizers pick one girl—she’s usually special in some way—and make her the Blood Prize.”
She stopped talking and Keri could sense she didn’t want to continue, didn’t want to hurt the woman who’d rescued her and helped her see a future for herself.
“It’s okay, Susan,” Keri insisted. “Go on. I need to know everything.”
She heard the girl give a deep sigh on the other end of the line before continuing.
“So the event starts around nine at night. For a while it’s just like a regular Hill House party. But then they bring in the girl who has been chosen as the Blood Prize. Like I said, there’s usually something different about her. Maybe she’s a virgin. Maybe she was just abducted that day so she’s been on the news. Once it was former child star who got hooked on drugs and ended up on the streets.”
“And this year it’s Evie,” Keri prodded.
“Yeah, there’s a girl named Lupita from my hooking days in Venice who I keep in touch with. She still works the streets and she overheard some guys talking about how they were using the lady cop’s daughter this year. They’re using the nickname ‘mini-pig’ to describe her.”
“Very creative,” Keri muttered bitterly. “And you said they picked her because I’m getting too close?”
“Right,” Susan confirmed. “The powers that be were tired of moving her around. They said she’s become a liability with you constantly on the hunt for her. They just want to finish her off and dump her body somewhere, so you know she’s dead and will stop looking. I’m so sorry, Detective.”
“Go on,” Keri said. Her body was numb and her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away, outside of herself.
“So it’s basically an auction. All the big spenders will bid on her. Sometimes it gets into the hundreds of thousands. These guys are competitive. Plus there’s the fact that by punishing her, it’s like they’re reaching out and hurting you. I’m sure that’ll up the cost. And I think they’re all turned on by how it ends.”
“Remind me of that part,” Keri asked, closing her eyes in preparation. She sensed Susan’s hesitation but didn’t press, letting the girl gather herself to say what had to be said. Ray edged a little closer to her on the couch and moved his arm from her back, wrapping it around her shoulder.
“Whoever wins the auction is taken to a separate room while the Blood Prize is prepared. She’s bathed and put in a fancy dress. Someone does her makeup, movie-star style. Then she’s taken to a room where the guy gets to have his way with her. The only rule is he can’t hurt her face.”
Keri noticed that Susan’s voice had grown hard, as if she was turning off the part of herself that felt emotion so she could get through this. Keri didn’t blame her. The girl went on.
“I mean, he can do things to her, you know. He just can’t hit her or slap her above the neck. She’s got to look right for the big event later. They don’t mind if her mascara is streaky because she’s been crying. That adds to the drama. Just no bruises.”
“What happens next?”
“The guy has to be finished a little bit before midnight because that’s when the final sacrifice happens. They put her in a fresh dress and strap her down so she can’t move too much. She can wriggle a little. They like that. But not too much.”
Despite her eyes being closed, Keri sensed Ray stiffening beside her. He seemed to be holding his breath. She realized she was doing the same thing and forced herself to exhale when she heard Susan pause to swallow.
“The guy puts on a black robe and a hood to hide his identity,” she continued. “That’s because the thing is shown on TV in the main room where everyone else is. I think it’s recorded too. Obviously none of these guys want video evidence of them murdering a teenage girl.
“When they’re both prepped, the guy comes in and stands behind her. He delivers some prepared line, I don’t know what. Then he’s handed a knife and, right at the stroke of midnight, he slits her throat. She dies, right there on camera. Everybody recites something. Then they turn the TV off and the party resumes. That’s pretty much it.”
Keri finally opened her eyes. She felt a tear trickle down her cheek but refused to wipe it away. She liked the way it almost burned her skin, like a wet flame.
As long as she could keep that flame of righteous fury alive in her heart, she was sure she could keep Evie alive too.
For a long time, no one spoke. Keri didn’t think she could. Instead, she let the rising tide of rage fill her up, making her blood boil and her fingers tingle.
Finally Ray cleared his throat.
“Susan, this is Detective Locke’s partner, Ray Sands. Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Detective.”
“How do you know all this? I mean, were you at one of these parties?”
“Like I told Detective Locke, I was taken to a Hill House Party once when I was about eleven. I was never brought back but I know girls who have been. One of my friends was taken twice. And you can imagine how word spreads. Any girl who’s been in the life in LA knows all the details about the Vista. It’s become almost an urban legend. Pimps sometimes use it to keep their girls in line. ‘Talk back and you might be the Blood Prize this year.’ Only this legend is actually true.”
Something in Susan’s tone—the mix of fear and sadness—snapped Keri out of her silence. This young girl had made so much progress in recent months. But Keri feared that asking her to return, even just in memory, to the dark place she’d inhabited for years was unfair and cruel. Susan had shared everything she could, at the cost of her own emotional well-being. It was time to let her try to be a kid again.
The adults had to take over now.
“Susan,” she said, “thank you so much for telling me all this. I know it wasn’t easy for you. With the information you’ve given us, I think we’ve got a great start at finding Evie. I don’t want you to worry about this anymore, okay?”
“I could check around some more,” the girl insisted.
“No. You’ve done enough. It’s time to get back to your new life. I promise to check in with you. But for now I need you to focus on schoolwork. Maybe read a new Nancy Drew book we can talk about next week. We’ve got it from here, kiddo.”
They said goodbye and Keri hung up. She looked over at Ray.
“You think we’ve got a great start at finding Evie?” he asked skeptically.
“No, but I couldn’t tell her that. Besides, it may not be great. But it’s a start.”
Keri and Ray sat in Ronnie’s Diner, both lost in thought. The morning rush at the nondescript joint in Marina del Rey had ended and most of the customers in the place were enjoying a leisurely breakfast.
Ray had insisted they leave the apartment and Keri had agreed. She had dressed more casually than usual, in a long-sleeved shirt and faded jeans, with a light jacket to protect against the crisp January morning.
She wore a baseball cap, pulled down low over the top half of her face. She let her dirty-blonde hair, normally pulled back in a professional ponytail, intentionally hang loose to swallow her face and hide the bruises she knew would make others stare.
She hunched down in their booth as she sipped coffee, further hiding her already modest frame. Keri, almost thirty-six years old, was an unimposing five foot six. Recently, she’d taken to wearing more form-fitting attire, as she’d cut down on the drinking and gotten back into solid shape. But not today. This morning, she was hoping to go unnoticed.
It was nice just to get out after two days of doctor-ordered bed rest. But Keri was also hoping that a change of scenery would give her a fresh perspective on how to find Evie. And it had worked to some degree.
By the time their food arrived they’d agreed not to formally involve their team, the Missing Persons Unit of LAPD’s West Los Angeles Pacific Division, in the search. The unit had been helping Keri look for her daughter on and off for years, to no avail. There was no reason to assume the outcome would be any different without new evidence to go on.
But there was another reason to keep a low profile. This was truly Keri’s last chance to find her daughter. She knew the exact time that Evie would be in a certain part of LA—the Hollywood Hills at midnight tomorrow—even if she didn’t have the specific location yet.
But if the team started poking around and word got out that they knew about the Vista event, the people who had Evie might cancel the event or just kill her early to avoid complications. Keri needed to keep things quiet.
Unspoken but understood between the partners and new couple was another wrinkle. They couldn’t be sure they weren’t being monitored by the person they most needed to keep in the dark—Jackson Cave.
Last year Keri had taken down a serial child abductor named Alan Jack Pachanga, ultimately killing him while rescuing a teenage girl. And while Pachanga was no longer a problem, his lawyer was.
Jackson Cave, the man’s attorney, was a big-time corporate lawyer with a fancy downtown high-rise office. But he had also made something of a career of representing the dregs of society. He seemed to have a particular affinity for child predators. He claimed much of it was pro bono work and that even the worst among us deserved quality representation.
But Keri had uncovered information that seemed to link him to a vast network of child abductors, a network she suspected he was profiting from and helping to direct. One of the abductors in the network was a man who went by the title of the Collector.
Last fall, when Keri learned that the Collector was Evie’s abductor, she lured him into a meeting. But the Collector, whose real name was Brian Wickwire, discovered her ruse and attacked her. She ended up killing him in their fight, but not before he swore she would never find Evie.
Unfortunately, she had no evidence that could prove Jackson Cave’s connection to the man who’d taken her daughter or the larger network he seemed to run. At least none that she’d obtained legally.
In desperation, she’d once broken into his office and found a coded file that had proven helpful. But the fact that she’d stolen it made it inadmissible in court. Besides that, the connections between Cave and the network were so well-hidden and tenuous that proving his involvement would be nearly impossible. He hadn’t reached his position of power atop the Los Angeles legal world by being sloppy or careless.
She even tried to convince her ex-husband, Stephen, a wealthy Hollywood talent agent, to help pay for a private investigator to follow Cave. A good investigator was well beyond her means alone. But Stephen refused, essentially saying he thought Evie was dead and Keri was delusional.
Of course Jackson Cave had no such financial limitations. And once he realized that Keri was on to him, he started having her surveilled. Both she and Ray had found bugs in their homes and cars. Each of them now did regular bug sweeps of everything from their clothes to their phones to their shoes before discussing anything sensitive. They also suspected even their LAPD office was monitored and acted accordingly.
That’s why they sat in a loud diner, wearing clothes they’d swept for recording devices, making sure no one at nearby tables seemed to be listening in, as they formulated their plan. If there was one person they didn’t want to know they were aware of Vista, it was Jackson Cave.
In her multiple verbal confrontations with him, it had become clear to Keri that something had changed in Cave. He may have originally viewed her as merely a threat to his business, another obstacle to overcome. But no longer.
After all, she’d killed two of his biggest earners, stolen files from his office, cracked codes, and put his business, and perhaps his freedom, at risk. Of course, she was doing it all to find her daughter.
But she sensed that Cave had come to see her as more than merely an opponent, some chick cop desperate to find her kid. He seemed to consider her almost as his nemesis, as some sort of mortal enemy. He didn’t just want to defeat her anymore. He wanted to destroy her.
Keri was sure that was why Evie was to be the Blood Prize at the Vista. She doubted that Cave knew where Evie was being held or who was holding her. But he surely knew the people who knew the people who knew those things. And he had almost certainly instructed, at least indirectly, that Evie be the sacrifice at tomorrow’s party as a way to break Keri beyond repair.
There was no point in tailing him or formally interrogating him. He was far too clever and careful to make any mistakes, especially since he knew she was on to him. But he was behind all of it—of that Keri was certain. She’d just have to find another way to solve this.
With a renewed sense of resolve she looked up to find that Ray was watching her closely.
“How long have you been staring at me?” she asked.
“A couple of minutes, at least. I didn’t want to interrupt. You looked like you were doing some seriously deep thinking. Have any epiphanies?”
“Not really,” she admitted. “We both know who’s behind this but I don’t think that helps us much. I need to start fresh and hope to track down some new leads.”
“You mean ‘we,’ right?” Ray said.
“Don’t you have to go in to work today? You’ve been off for a while taking care of me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding, Tinker Bell,” he said with a smile, alluding to their massive size disparity. “You think I’m just going to go into the office with everything going on? I’ll use every sick, personal, and vacation day I have if it comes to that.”
Keri felt her entire chest warm over with delight but tried to hide it.
“I appreciate that, Godzilla,” she said. “But with me still being on suspension because of the IA investigation, we might need you to take advantage of some of those official police resources you have access to.”
Keri was technically on suspension while Internal Affairs investigated the circumstances surrounding her killing of Brian “The Collector” Wickwire. Their supervisor, Lieutenant Cole Hillman, had indicated that it would likely be wrapped up soon in her favor. But until then, Keri had no badge, no department-issued weapon, no formal authority, and no access to police resources.
“Was there something particular you thought I should be looking into?” Ray asked.
“Actually, yes. Susan mentioned that one of the past Blood Prize girls was a former child actress who became an addict and ended up on the streets. If she was raped and murdered, especially by having her throat slit, there should be a record of it, right? I don’t remember it being on the news but maybe I missed it. If you could track that down, maybe the forensic workup included DNA from the semen of the man who assaulted her.”
“It’s possible no one ever thought to even check for DNA,” Ray added. “If they found this girl dead with her throat cut, they might not have felt the need to do anything further. If we can figure out who she was, maybe we can have more testing done, put a rush on it and ID who she was with.”
“Exactly,” Keri agreed. “Just remember to be discreet. Involve as few people as possible. We don’t know how many ears our lawyer friend has in the building.”
“Understood. So what do you plan to do while I pore over old records of murdered teenage girls?”
“I’m going to interview a possible witness.”
“Who’s that?” Ray asked.
“Susan’s prostitute friend, Lupita—the one who said she overheard those guys talking about the Vista. Maybe she’ll remember more with a little help.”
“Okay, Keri, but remember to go a little easy. That area of Venice is rough and you’re still not at full strength. Besides, at least for now, you’re not even a cop.”
“Thanks for the concern, Ray. But I think you know by now. Going easy just isn’t my style.”
As Keri pulled up in front of the Venice address Susan had texted her, she forced herself to forget about the lingering pain in her chest and knee. She was entering potentially dangerous territory. And since she was not officially on the job right now, she had to be on extra high alert. No one here would give her the benefit of the doubt.
It was only mid-morning and as she crossed Pacific Avenuein this seedy stretch of Venice, her only company was tattooed surfers, oblivious to the cold and headed to the ocean just a block away, and homeless men huddled in the doorways of not-yet-open businesses.
She arrived at the rundown apartment complex, walked through the open front door, and walked up three flights of stairs to the room where Lupita was supposedly expecting her. Business didn’t usually pick up until after lunch so this was a good time to stop by.
Keri approached the door and was about to knock when she heard noise from inside. She checked and found the door unlocked and quietly opened it, peeking her head in.
On the bed in the unadorned room was a brunette girl who looked to be about fifteen. On top of her was a naked, wiry man in his thirties. Covers hid the particulars, but he was thrusting down aggressively. Every few seconds he would slap the girl in the face.
Keri fought the strong urge to march in and rip the guy off her. Even without the badge, it was her natural inclination. But she had no idea if this was a john and the activity taking place was standard operating procedure.
Sad experience had taught her that sometimes coming to the rescue was counterproductive in the long run. If this was a client and Keri interrupted, the guy might get upset and complain to Lupita’s pimp, who would take it out on her. Unless a girl was willing to leave the life for good, as Susan Granger had, stepping in, while following the law, might only make things worse for her in the big picture.
Keri stepped into the room a bit more and caught Lupita’s eye. The frail-looking girl with curly dark hair gave her a familiar look, a mix of pleading, fear, and wariness. Keri knew almost immediately what it meant. She needed help but not too much help.
This clearly was a john, maybe a new, unexpected last-minute one, because he was here when Lupita had agreed to meet Keri. But she’d been told to service him anyway. It was likely that the slapping was unexpected. But she wasn’t in a position to object in case her pimp had given permission.
Keri knew how to handle it. She stepped forward quickly and quietly, pulling a rubber baton from the inside pocket of her jacket. Lupita’s eyes got big and Keri could tell the john had noticed. He was just starting to turn his head to look behind him when the baton connected with the rear of his skull. He fell forward, collapsing on top of the girl, unconscious.
Keri held her finger to her lips, indicating for Lupita to stay quiet. She stepped around to the side of the bed to make sure the john really was out cold. He was.
“Lupita?” she asked.
The girl nodded.
“I’m Detective Locke,” she said, neglecting to say that for now, she wasn’t technically a detective. “Don’t worry. If we’re quick, this doesn’t have to be a problem. When your pimp asks, here’s what happened: a short guy in a masked hood came in, knocked out your john, and stole his wallet. You never saw his face. He threatened to kill you if you made a sound. When I leave this room, you count to twenty, then start screaming for help. There’s no way you can be blamed. Got it?”
Lupita nodded again.
“Okay,” Keri said as she rifled through the man’s jeans and pulled out his wallet. “I don’t think he’ll be out more than a minute or two so let’s cut to the chase. Susan said you overheard some guys talking about the Vista happening tomorrow night. Do you know who was talking? Was one of them your pimp?”
“Uh-uh,” Lupita whispered. “I didn’t recognize the voices. And when I looked out in the hall they were gone.”
“That’s okay. Susan told me what they said about my daughter. What I want you to focus on is the location. I know they always hold this Vista thing in the Hollywood Hills. But were they any more specific than that? Did they mention a street? Any landmarks?”
“They didn’t mention a street. But one of them was complaining that it was going to be more of a hassle than last year because it was gated. In fact, he said ‘the estate is gated.’ So I’m assuming it’s more than just a house.”
“That’s really helpful, Lupita. Anything else?”
“One of them said he was bummed because they wouldn’t be close enough to see the Hollywood sign. I guess last year, the house was right near it. But this time they’ll be too far away, in a different area. Does that help?”
“Actually it does. That means it’s probably closer to West Hollywood. It narrows it down. That’s really helpful. Anything more?”
The man on top of her groaned softly and started to stir.
“I can’t think of anything,” Lupita muttered, barely audible.
“That’s all right. This is more than I had before. You’ve been a big help. And if you ever decide you want to get out of the life, you can reach out to me through Susan.”
Lupita, despite her situation, smiled. Keri took off her cap, pulled a black hood out from her pocket, and put it on. It had small slits for her eyes and mouth.
“Now remember,” she said in a deep voice intended to hide her own, “wait twenty seconds or I’ll kill you.”
The man on top of Lupita was coming to, so Keri turned and hurried out of the room. She rushed down the hall and was halfway down the stairs when she heard the screams for help. She ignored them and made her way to the front door, where she pulled off the hood, stuffed it back in her pocket, and put on her cap.
She rifled through the guy’s wallet, and, after taking out the cash—all of twenty-three dollars—she tossed it in the corner by the door. As casually as possible, she walked back across the street to her car. As she got in, she could hear the shouts of angry men, headed toward Lupita’s room.
When she was clear of the area, she called Ray to see if he’d had any luck with his lead. He picked up after one ring and she could tell from his voice that it hadn’t gone well.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s a dead end, Keri. I’ve gone back ten years and can’t find any record of a former child star who was found with her throat slit. I did find a record of a former child actress named Carly Rose who fell on hard times and went missing as a teen. She’d be about twenty now. It could easily be her. Or she could have just overdosed in a subway tunnel and never been found. Hard to know. I also found records of other girls between eleven and fourteen who meet a similar description—throats slit. Bodies just left in dumps or even on street corners. But usually they’re girls who were on the streets for a while. And they’re really spread out over time.”
“That actually makes sense to me,” Keri said. “These people probably had no compunction about dumping the bodies of girls who worked the streets or had no family. But they wouldn’t want to draw attention by leaving the bodies of girls from good homes who were recently abducted or a girl who was well known. Those might initiate real investigations. I bet those girls were burned, buried, or dumped in the ocean. It’s the ones no one would follow up on that they just dumped anywhere.”
Keri chose to ignore the fact that she’d said all of that so matter-of-factly. If she lingered on it, she’d be bothered by how inured she’d become to these kinds of atrocities.
“That fits,” Ray agreed, sounding equally unfazed. “It might also explain the gap in years. If they used a street prostitute one year, then used a few kidnapped suburban kids before returning to another teen hooker, it would be harder to establish a pattern. I mean, if a teen hooker showed up once a year with her throat slit, that might generate interest too.”
“Good point,” Keri said. “So there wasn’t anything to go on then.”
“Nah. Sorry. You have better luck?”
“A little,” she said. “Based on what Lupita said, it sounds like the location may be in West Hollywood, on a gated estate.”
“That’s promising,” Ray noted.
“I guess. There are a thousand of those up in those hills.”
“We can have Edgerton cross-reference them to see if the property titles match up to anyone we know. With dummy companies, it’s probably a long shot. But you never know what that guy will come up with.”
It was true. Detective Kevin Edgerton was a genius when it came to anything tech. If anyone could suss out a meaningful connection, it was him.
“Okay, let him have at it,” Keri said. “But have him do it under the radar. And don’t give him too many details. The fewer people who know what’s going on, the less chance someone inadvertently leaks something that tips off the wrong people.”
“Understood. What are you going to do?”
Keri thought for a moment and realized she didn’t have any new leads to follow up. That meant she had to do what she always did when she hit a brick wall—start fresh. And there was one person she realized she definitely needed a fresh start with.
“Actually,” she said, “can you ask Castillo to call me, but have her do it outside, using her cell?”
“Okay. What are you thinking?” Ray asked.
“I’m thinking it’s about time I reacquainted myself with an old friend.”
Keri waited anxiously in her car, eyeing the clock as she sat outside the offices of Weekly L.A., the alternative newspaper where she had asked Officer Jamie Castillo to meet her. It was also where her friend, Margaret “Mags” Merrywether, worked as a columnist.
Time was starting to run short. It was already 12:30 on Friday, roughly thirty-six hours from when her daughter was going to be raped and ritualistically murdered for the pleasure of a group of wealthy soul-sick men.
Keri saw Jamie walking down the street and shook the dark thoughts from her head. She needed to stay focused on how to prevent her daughter’s death, not obsess on the awfulness of how it might unfold.
As she had requested, Jamie was wearing a civilian coat over her uniform to draw less notice. Keri waved at her from the driver’s seat, getting her attention. Jamie smiled and headed for the car, her dark hair blowing in the bitter wind despite being pulled back in a ponytail. She was taller than Keri by a few inches and more athletic too. She was a Parkour enthusiast and Keri had seen what she could do under duress.
Officer Jamila Cassandra Castillo wasn’t yet a detective. But Keri was sure that once she made it, she’d be a great. In addition to her physical skills, she was tough, smart, relentless, and loyal. She’d already put her own safety and even her job on the line for Keri. If she wasn’t already partners with Ray, Keri knew who her next choice would have been.
Jamie got in the car gingerly, wincing involuntarily, and Keri remembered why. While on the hunt for the suspect who gave Keri her current injuries, Jamie had been in the proximity of a bomb that went off at the guy’s apartment. It had killed one FBI agent, badly burned another, and left Ray with a chunk of glass in his right leg, something he hadn’t mentioned since. Jamie had ended up with a concussion and some serious bruises.
“Weren’t you just released from the hospital today?” Keri asked, incredulous.
“Yep,” she said with pride in her voice. “They let me go this morning. I went home, changed into my uniform, and made it in to work ten minutes late. Lieutenant Hillman cut me some slack though.”
“How are your ears?” Keri asked, referring to the hearing loss Jamie had suffered in the moments after the bomb blast.
“I can hear you fine right now. I get some intermittent ringing. The doctor says that should go away in a week or two. No permanent damage.”
“I can’t believe you’re working today,” Keri muttered, shaking her head. “And I can’t believe I’m asking you to go above and beyond on your first day back.”
“It’s no problem,” Jamie assured her. “I needed to get out for a bit. Everyone was treating me like a porcelain doll. But I do have to get right back or I’d hang out. I brought what you asked for, though.”
She pulled a file out of her bag and handed it to Keri.
“No problem. And before you ask, I used the ‘general’ username ID when I searched the database, so it won’t be tracked to me. I assume there’s a reason you didn’t want me using my own ID. And I further assume there’s a reason you didn’t volunteer anything about why you asked for this stuff?”
“You assume correctly,” Keri said, hoping Jamie would leave it at that.
“And I assume you’re not going to tell me what’s going on or let me help in any way?”
“It’s for your own good, Jamie. The less you know the better. And the less anyone knows you helped me, the better for what I’m doing.”
“Okay. I trust you. But if you find that at some point down the road you do need help, you have my number.”
“I do,” Keri said, giving Castillo’s hand a squeeze.
She waited until the officer had returned to her car and pulled out into the street before getting out of her own. Gripping the file Castillo had given her tightly to her body, Keri hurried up the steps and into the Weekly L.A. building, where Mags, and hopefully some answers, were waiting for her.
Two hours later, there was a knock on the door of the conference room where Keri had set up shop and had been poring over documents. The large table in the center of the room was covered in papers.
“Who is it?” she asked. The door opened slightly. It was Mags.
“Just checking in,” she said. “I wanted to see if you could use any help, darling.”
“Actually, I could use a little break. Come on in.”
Mags stepped inside, shut and locked the door behind her, made sure the blinds were still fully closed so no one could see in, and walked over. Once again, Keri marveled at how she had become friends with what was essentially the live-action version of Jessica Rabbit.
Margaret Merrywether was over six feet tall, even without the high heels she usually wore. Statuesque, with milky-white skin, ample curves, flaming red hair matched by her ruby red lips, and bright green eyes, she seemed like she’d stepped out of the pages of a high-fashion magazine for Amazon women.
And that was all before she opened her mouth to reveal an accent that suggested Scarlett O’Hara, only slightly undercut by a tart tongue that was more Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Only that mildly biting tone hinted at Margaret’s (Mags to her friends) alter ego. It turned out she also went by the pseudonym “Mary Brady,” the alternative paper’s muckraking columnist who had brought down local politicians, uncovered corporate malfeasance, and called out dirty cops.
Mags was also a happily divorced mother of two, made even wealthier after she parted ways from her banker ex-husband. Keri had met her while working a case and after some initial suspicion that her whole persona was some elaborate form of performance art, a friendship had blossomed. Keri, who didn’t have many friends outside of work, was happy to be the boring one for once.
Mags sat down in the seat beside Keri and looked at the collage of police documents and newspaper clippings spread out on the table.
“So, my dear, you asked me to collect copies of every article the paper had ever written on Jackson Cave. And I see that you asked someone in the department to do the same with everything they have on him. Then you locked yourself in here for two hours. Are you ready to tell me what’s going on?”
“I am,” Keri said. “Just give me a moment first.”
She got up, pulled a bug detector out of her bag, and proceeded to sweep the entire conference room. Mags raised her eyebrows but didn’t seem stunned.
“You know, darling,” she began, “I’m hardly one to tell you you’re being overcautious. But I have this sort of thing done professionally twice a week.”
“I have no doubt,” Keri said. “But thanks for humoring me. This was given to me by a techie friend I trust.”
“Someone in the department?” Mags asked.
“No, he’s actually a mall security guard. It’s a long story but let’s just say the guy knows his stuff and he owed me a favor, so when I asked for a recommendation for a good bug detector, he gave me this as a gift.”
“That sounds like a long story I might like to hear when we have a bit more time,” Mags said.
Keri nodded absentmindedly as she continued to sweep the room. Mags smiled and waited patiently. When Keri was done and found nothing, she sat back down.
“Okay, here it is,” she said and launched into her history with Cave, much of which Mags was already familiar with.
In fact, her friend had even recently helped her lure out information from an assassin-for-hire with a connection to Cave. He was a man known only as the Black Widower, a mystery figure who drove a black Lincoln Continental without plates.
Months earlier, Keri had watched on security camera footage as he casually killed the man who’d been holding Evie, shoved Evie into his trunk, and disappeared with her into the night, all, Keri suspected, on the orders of Cave.
Somehow, Mags had managed find a way to anonymously reach out to the Black Widower. It turned out that he was happy to pass on a lead about Evie’s whereabouts for a hefty price. He seemed to have no loyalties, which worked out well for Keri in that instance because his information ultimately led to her learning of the existence of the Vista event.
But while some of the particulars, like the Black Widower connection, were old news to her, Mags said nothing. She didn’t interrupt once, although she pulled out a notepad and took occasional notes. She listened intently, from the beginning all the way up to the call from Susan Granger this morning about Evie being the Blood Prize at the Vista.
When she was sure Keri was done, she asked a question.
“I understand your predicament, Keri. And I’m horrified for you. But I still don’t understand. Why are you staring at hundreds of papers about Mr. Cave?”
“Because I’m at my wits’ end, Mags. I have no more leads. I have no more clues. The only thing I know for certain is that Jackson Cave is somehow involved in my daughter’s case.”
“You’re certain?” Mags asked.
“Yes,” Keri said. “I don’t think he was initially. He probably had no idea that one of his abductors’ victims was my daughter. After all, I wasn’t even a detective at the time. I was a college professor. Her disappearance is the reason I became a cop. I don’t even know at what point I really attracted his interest. But at some point he must have pieced together that the kid the lady detective was searching for was abducted by someone he had commissioned.”
“And you think he sought out her location?” Mags asked. “You think he knows where she is now?”
“Those are two very different questions. I’m sure that at some point he did investigate her location. It would have been in his interest to know her circumstance. But that would have been well before I started to sniff him out. Once he suspected I was looking into him, I have no doubt he made sure that he couldn’t be connected to her. He knows that if I thought he could lead me to Evie, I’d follow him day and night. He probably worries that I’d kidnap him and torture him to get her location.”
“Would you?” Mags asked, more curiously than accusingly.
“I would. A million times over I would.”
“Me too,” Mags whispered.
“So I don’t think that Jackson Cave knows where my daughter is or who has her. But I do think he knows individuals who know individuals who know where she is. I think he could find out her current location if he was so inclined. And I think that he could direct her to be at a specific location at a particular time if he wanted. That’s what I think is going on. I think Evie is the Blood Prize because he wants her to be. And somehow, his wishes have been conveyed to the people who can make it happen.”
“So you want to follow that trail?”
“No,” Keri said. “The maze from him to her is too complicated for me to figure out, even if I had unlimited time, which I obviously don’t. That’s a rabbit hole I won’t go down. But I started to realize, all this time I’ve only been looking at Jackson Cave as an opponent, the mastermind who is keeping me from my daughter, this malevolent force out to destroy my family.”
“He’s not?” Mags asked, sounding surprised and almost offended.
“He is. But that’s not how he sees himself. And that’s not what he always was. I realized that I have to forget my preconceptions to learn who this guy is and what makes him tick.”
“Why do you care what makes him tick?”
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