I’m no saint. I’m certainly no prude. I’ve been visiting cat houses—what the old timers call notch joints back in the States—since I was a teenager and Sig owned a few houses back in our Coney Island days. The professional ladies of pleasure know what they’re doing, and sometimes, on my loneliest nights in my dangerous life, when I miss Sophie so much I’m dizzy with longing, it takes a professional to do what needs doing. And I have a soft spot for the ladies. They and I have something in common: we make our living outside the Law, because the Law dealt both of us rigged hands. The Law says I’m a criminal just because I romance women. And the Law says it’s a crime for the ladies to decide what to do with their own flesh and bones.
I can’t kid myself, though. I know that “the life” can be risky. It’s not unusual for a Lady of Pleasure to have the “pleasure” beaten out of her by rough trade or a vicious pimp who gets his kicks by using her as a slave. The only freedom she can hope for is to grow old, discarded, and die. The idea that Sophie, my Sophie, is caught in such a life scares me to death.
And then there’s the filthy horror that sends its stench through all those other horrors, a scenario twisting me up so bad I can barely breathe: the thought of Sophie pawed over by sweaty tourists and needy locals not only breaks my heart, it makes me sick.
Sure, add hypocrite to my list of sins.
I soothe myself a little by believing that whoever took her would realize Sophie is a class act and would stow her in one of the town’s fancier, ultra-discreet joints catering to the island’s secretive aristocrats and moneyed clientele, the kind of places where the women aren’t batted around, and even protected from violent clients.
It’s been a long time since I was last in Havana and availed myself of its erotic pleasures. Considering the current power shifts in the local underworld, and those gang wars Lansky and Nilo talked about, the Who’s Who of the cat houses is probably not the same Who’s Who I dealt with ten years ago. As far as I know, nobody in the fancier fleshpots owes me any favors, and without an invitation from a regular client or someone else well connected, I can’t get into those joints, and I don’t even know where they are. I can’t get information about those places without help. But until that help comes, I’m on my own, with nowhere to look but the back rooms of bars, the fleabag hotels, and the streets.
Havana, 1952, a city throbbing with pleasure and danger, where the Mob peddles glamor to the tourists and there’s plenty of sex for sale. In the swanky hotels and casinos, and the steamy, secretive Red Light district of the Colón, Cantor Gold, dapper art thief and smuggler, searches the streets and brothels for her kidnapped love, Sophie de la Luna y Sol. Cantor races against time while trying to out run the deadly schemes of American mobsters and the gunsights of murderous local gangs.
Learn more about award-winning author, Ann Aptaker:
Native New Yorker Ann Aptaker has earned a reputation as a respected if cheeky exhibition designer and curator of art during her career in museums and galleries. Taking the approach that what art authorities find uncomfortable the public would likely enjoy, exhibitions Ann has curated have garnered favorable reviews in the New York Times, Art in America, American Art Review, and other publications.
She brings the same attitude and philosophy to her first love: writing, especially a tangy variety of historical crime fiction. Ann’s short stories have appeared in two editions (2003 and 2004) of the noir crime anthology Fedora. Her flash fiction story, “A Night In Town,” appeared in the online zine Punk Soul Poet. In addition to curating and designing art exhibitions and writing crime stories, Ann is also an art writer and an adjunct professor of art history at the New York Institute of Technology. (Publisher).
Where the fuck are you? Gordy saw the text as she sped up Beach Boulevard, racing toward Kenwood. Stopping to reply would slow her down and she was determined to get to Dana’s on time, so she ignored it. A line of cars was waiting to pull into the main drag, which was surprising, but Gordy knew the area well enough to know she could avoid them by going down a side street. She pulled the steering wheel sharply to swing a right down a narrow one-way street. She was halfway down when she realized there was a U-Haul farther down completely obstructing the street. Who the heck moved at this time of night? And if they did what gave them the right to block the street? She watched as two people of undetermined gender struggled to pull a large mattress from the back of the truck. Shit. This could take awhile, especially if they had a whole lot more furniture to unload. Now what? She supposed she could try to back all the way up this street but it was narrow and she wasn’t great at backing up the SUV at the best of times.
She heard a ping and looked down: I’m gonna put Sammy out on the curb if you’re not here in seven minutes. She’d promised Dana she’d be back before ten and even though she didn’t think her ex would really leave their child in the street, the second text worried her. She remembered what Dana had said the last time she was late to pick up Sammy. It was the night she met Kat. “I’ll sue for full custody if you do it again.”
Ahead of her to her left she saw a dirt alley that ran between the homes. She could use it to cut over to the next street. She generally avoided these alleys at night because they were dark and could be rutted, but she had no choice. She swerved left off the street feeling the gravel of the alley crunch beneath her tires. She should have explained to Kat that she didn’t have time to listen to the man serenading them, however romantic it was. She didn’t think Dana would put Sammy out on the street and she wasn’t totally convinced her ex would really ask for full custody, but she couldn’t risk either. She decided to text, just in case. She looked down at her phone. There in ten—, her thumbs flew across the keys and just as she was about to type mins she felt a massive jolt and heard a loud bang. Moments later she heard dogs barking in the distance.
She looked up in horror as the car shot forward. Shit! What the heck had she hit? She glanced in the rearview mirror and from the light reflectors made out something that looked like a large pile, though she couldn’t tell of what. Had she hit it? Was that what caused the loud thud? If she hadn’t been looking at her lap, texting, she’d know for sure. Meanwhile her car was still moving forward and was already at the end of the alley.
She was shaking badly. She should run back and take a quick look. What if she’d damaged something on someone’s property? But it was an alley so the only stuff out there was yard debris or trash to be picked up by the city. There must have been something in that pile. She pulled out from the alley onto the street, thankful that she hadn’t blown a tire, but then, feeling guilty, she decided she had to make a quick stop. She grabbed her flashlight and ran back down the alley. She shone her flashlight, sweeping it from side to side. There was a pile of wood, stacked neatly next to some trashcans. Several logs seemed to have toppled off it. That must have been what she’d hit. Relieved, she ran back to her SUV and gunned the engine. Dana would make a song and dance about being late. Thank goodness the SUV was in her name only. If it were joint property, she could only imagine the torrent of criticism that Dana would have hurled when she saw the damage to the body and paintwork.
She was almost at Dana’s house. Once her ex had finished dressing her down she’d take Sammy home and put him to bed. Then she’d be able to relive the earlier part of the evening, remembering the way Kat’s eyes danced and how a little dimple appeared in her cheek when she smiled. In the morning she’d see what the damage was to the Hyundai and ask her cousin Rico to fix it. And from now on she absolutely wouldn’t text while driving. It was stupid and she could have gotten into serious trouble. What if she’d damaged someone’s property and they got nasty and wanted to call the cops? An even scarier thought came to mind. What if she’d hit someone and been arrested on the spot? The form she’d completed for her green card had asked her not only if she’d been convicted of a crime, but also if she’d been arrested for one. If she were arrested now, it would be catastrophic. She knew they would repeat that question verbally when she got to her fingerprinting appointment. That appointment next week was so they could do one more full background check. If she told them she’d been arrested that week, even if she were out on bail, they would turn down her request for the ten-year green card. Once they did that, it was the same as being given a deportation notice—she’d have no legal way to stay in the country. How could she have been so stupid as to risk all that?
Just the thought of deportation made her shake all over. People who’d never been through the immigration system had no idea how tenuous life as an “alien” could feel, especially now. It never even occurred to them that people like her, professionals with legal permits, felt some of the same stress and strains as those who lived in the shadows. They didn’t realize that until she was actually a citizen, she didn’t enjoy the full protections they did. But now, finally, she was getting closer to that day. The ten-year card would end much of that stress, and long before the ten years were up she’d be eligible to apply for citizenship and become just like everyone else.
For months before she got the letter requesting her presence for fingerprinting, she’d visualized herself over and again getting the card. She spent nights picturing herself walking through those wide doors into the Tampa Immigration and Naturalization office, waiting way past her appointment time (as she always did), then getting called back to an office. In her mind, the immigration official who would quiz her and Dana would be supportive and sympathetic and would smile warmly at them when they gave her the stamp of approval. Gordy tried not to remember the officer who granted the two-year card. A large military-looking women who’d made it clear she didn’t believe in same-sex marriage, she’d scowled throughout the entire interview and then snarled at Gordy in her Russian-accented English, almost spitting as she made jabbing motions in the air. “You think you citizen? You not. Don’t forget. You commit crime? You deported.”
At the time she’d shrugged it off. She wasn’t going to commit a crime, and there was no reason why an upstanding professional would be deported. She’d felt pretty secure. But lately everything had changed. Just this week a soccer coach had been deported, his only crime being a traffic violation.
She was so close to the finish line, but tonight she’d almost blown it. All she had to do was keep her nose clean for another week. And if that meant picking up her son late and getting in trouble with her ex for not texting, the price was worth it.
A hit-and-run. A terrified suspect. A woman caught between her friend and her lover Wynn Larimer (who readers met in Along Came the Rain) is putting out the trash late one night when a car smashes into her, injuring her so badly that her entire livelihood is put in jeopardy. Gabriella Luna (Gordy) is about to achieve permanent resident status in the USA when she’s accused of a felony crime. The timing couldn’t be worse—she’s terrified of being deported. The woman caught in the middle is Kat Ayalon (who readers met in Devoted.) Wynn is Kat’s best friend and Gordy is Kat’s new love interest. But when the worlds of Wynn and Gordy collide, Kat doesn’t know how she can support both women, if helping one means selling out the other.
New York, 1952. From the shadowy docks of Athens, Greece, to the elegance of a Fifth Avenue penthouse, to the neon glare of Coney Island, art smuggler Cantor Gold must track down an ancient artifact, elude thugs and killers, protect a beautiful woman who caters to Cantor’s deepest desires, and confront the honky-tonk past which formed her. Memories, murder, passion, and the terrible longing for her stolen love tangle in Cantor’s soul, threatening to tear her apart.
I find a parking spot in front of Sig’s building on Fortieth Street, a classy black brick Art Deco office tower crowned with Gothic-style gilt work, and where Sig maintains a penthouse residence. The building is across the street from Bryant Park and the main branch of the New York Public Library, the famous one with the two lions out front facing Fifth Avenue. I’m sure Sig’s enjoyed a stroll through the park. Not sure he’s ever been in the library.
Inside his building, the black marble lobby is filling up with nine-to-fivers shivering after their walk from the subway down the block. Businessmen in wool overcoats and gray fedoras, women in colorful coats, some in the new princess style pinched at the waist, walk briskly to the elevators. I like the princess style. I like any style that accentuates a woman’s body.
I don’t join the crowd at the bank of public elevators. I keep walking to the end of the row, to the private elevator to Sig’s penthouse, guarded by a thug the nine-to-fivers pointedly ignore. They know who lives in the penthouse. Their fear of the crime boss upstairs is greater than their thrill at occasionally being in the presence of the most powerful man in New York when they see him walking through the lobby. Maybe the businessmen tip their hats when they pass him, maybe the women give him a polite smile. None of them know he doesn’t give a damn.
I don’t know the thug guarding the private elevator, but then again, I haven’t been to see Sig in quite a while. So the galoot doesn’t know me, either. He eyes me up and down. It takes him a minute to figure me, then looks at me like he’s examining me for germs. “What’s your business here?”
“Tell Sig that Cantor Gold wants to see him.”
I have to wait while the lobby galoot calls on the intercom beside the elevator and gives the upstairs galoot my message, and that galoot in turn gives the message to Sig’s personal galoot. I use the time to enjoy the lovely sight of an especially pretty office girl reading the front page of her newspaper while she waits for an elevator. But as much as I’d like to linger along her angelic face, have a little fun imagining what’s under her coat, my attention’s diverted when she opens the paper and I can see the whole front page. I’m grabbed by a particular story—down below all the headlines about President Truman and the Red Scare, the shoot-’em-up in Korea, and the never ending bedlam of city politics—printed way down at the bottom of the page, like a cockroach that slipped under the door: judge acquits guzik.
So Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, the Chicago Mob’s payoff man, a confidante of Capone during Al’s heyday, beat another rap. It was Guzik who peeled off the bills that went into the palms of Chicago’s cops and politicians, a job which earned him the Greasy Thumb moniker. I met the guy a coupla times on his trips here after Al bit the dust back in ’47, and gangster power coalesced in New York.
The pretty office girl catches me smiling, which makes her cringe, and she turns away. That might hurt my feelings except I’m not smiling at her. Nope, I’m smiling because my chances of not being killed today by Sig Loreale just went up. He’ll be in a good mood.
Or in as good a mood as a killer can be. By the time the elevator reaches the penthouse floor, I’m asking myself whether coming here was such a hot idea after all. Probing Sig for his secrets is a dangerous play, whether he’s in a good mood or not.
But there’s no turning back. Sig wouldn’t let me, anyway. He knows I’m here and he’ll want to know why. I’d never make it out of the building.
One of his galoots greets me at the apartment door, tells me Sig is waiting for me in his den. “Through the livin’ room and to the left. And I gotta hold your piece.” The guy has all the charm of a shark chewing a leg.
I’m not crazy about handing over my gun, but Sig demands all visitors check any hardware at the door. He likes his guests defenseless. Resistance would only get me a fist in the gut, and frankly I’m just not in the mood. I give the galoot my gun and walk in.
The last time I was in this living room was a night in March of ’49. Crammed among the fine furnishings, English landscape paintings on the walls, and various antiquities here and there—a number of them supplied by me for hefty sums of Sig’s cash—were bushels of flowers for a wedding that was abruptly cancelled: Opal died that night, her wedding night. Sig took his revenge the next morning, soothed his broken heart with murder. I was there. I saw the woman Sig blamed for Opal’s death fall at my feet, a bullet in her skull. I saw Sig and his gunman drive away.
But before he drove away, Sig made a promise, the same promise he made again a year and a half ago when I handed over a Dürer watercolor that should’ve gone to a dead client’s heirs, or at least a museum. It was his promise to look into what happened to Sophie, a promise he hasn’t kept. Sig prides himself on his word, so either he really has no information, or his fabled square dealing is just that: a fable, a storyline to calm unsuspecting marks before he cleans them out, runs them outta town, or kills them.
If it turns out Sig sees me as one of the marks, or even just a pest, then Mom’s right; he’ll kill me. Maybe not today, but when a moment comes up that suits him.
Bringing these thoughts into a meeting with Sig is a bad idea. Worrying over my own demise will blunt my energy, and any encounter with Sig Loreale requires operating at full spark. A deep breath and a swallow are the only weapons I have to squelch my dangerous thoughts. They do the trick, because they have to.
I knock on the door of the den.
“Come in, Cantor,” comes through the door in Sig’s terrifyingly quiet, scratchy voice, like claws scraping the wood, and each word slow and precise, nothing sloppy, the same scalpel-sharp way Sig does business. Sig’s cultivated his manner of speech and his method of business to obliterate the messy, immigrant Coney Island background we both came from. I wonder, if I look hard enough, if I’ll see any of the same honky-tonk remnants in Sig that still lurk inside me. I doubt it. Sig’s too disciplined, his soul too cold to cozy up to any nostalgia, a soul grown only colder since Opal’s death.
He’s at his desk, a large burled maple affair in a burled maple paneled room that’s as much about power as taste, though the taste, I think, isn’t entirely Sig’s. Like the elegantly furnished living room, the den appears to be the work of the dearly departed Opal, whose mother, Mom Sheinbaum, bred Opal to marry into the American dream. Mom sent her to all the right schools to acquire the culture and taste that come with them, rid Opal of the salami taint of the Lower East Side. To Mom’s disappointment, Sig Loreale, the up-from-the-gutter crime lord and killer, was the beneficiary of all that culture, instead of the square-jawed, blue-eyed American dreamboat Mom wanted for her precious Opal.
Sig, in shirtsleeves, a half-finished cup of coffee on the desk, is reading a newspaper when I come in. What for other people would be an otherwise benign activity is, in Sig’s hands, a tableau of his ruthlessly efficient control of life: his, and while I’m here, mine. His white shirt, crisp in the light from the windows and the glass-paned door to the terrace, doesn’t have a single wrinkle, and wouldn’t dare. The gray-and-white houndstooth pattern of his tie is precisely aligned with the knot. The pinstripes on his charcoal suit-vest, fully buttoned, are in military straight lines. And though the cigar smoke curling around his face softens his jowly cheeks and the baggy pouches under his eyes, the smoke can’t hide the predatory menace in those eyes, despite his smile. It’s not a big smile, just a small sneer of satisfaction as he reads the same article about Greasy Thumb Guzik beating the rap that the pretty office girl read downstairs; only the office girl has no connection to Guzik or the judge who dismissed the charges against him. Sig, no doubt, does. Sig, no doubt, owns both Guzik and the judge. The judge, having done what he was told to do, will continue to live his plush, well-paid-for life for the foreseeable future. Jake Guzik will owe Sig his freedom. Both men will keep their mouths shut about anything they know regarding what goes on in the underworld. And Sig, to my relief, is in his ice-cold version of a good mood.
Retired homicide detective Linda Sikorsky and her wife Kirsten McClellan head to Maine for a long weekend of rest, relaxation and rewrites as Kirsten finishes drafting her first novel. Bad weather alters their plans, forcing them to stop for the night at the Cliff’s Edge, a motel known for secrecy and indiscretion. Something murderous goes bump in the night, sending the women on a search for justice when a young reporter’s body is found dumped and violated on a back road. A road Linda must now go down, no matter where it takes her, or what it reveals.
Exclusive Excerpt: Part I
CAYLEY DREES was nervous. She hadn’t heard from her confidential source for two days and she was supposed to meet him tonight. The timing could not be worse. A storm had made land the past six hours, covering Maine in thickening sheets of rain. She’d not had far to drive, just from Wathingham, where she lived and worked, to the outskirts of Lonesome Pointe, but the driving had been slow and treacherous. Drivers, including herself, had pulled off the highway at intervals to let the rain slow enough for them to see again. Visibility for parts of the 90 minute trip (now closing in on two and a half hours with weather delays) was approximately zero. She was relieved and curious to finally see the fading billboard announcing the Cliff’s Edge Motel just two miles up the road. At the rate she was going it would be a long two miles, but she was comforted to know her destination was in sight.
At twenty-three Cayley was already among those young achievers who made names for themselves on “30 Under 30” lists and nods to up-and-comers that appeared annually, praising the next generation’s best and brightest. She was going places, and like others of her type, she was the first to declare it. A natural journalist, Cayley had ignored the probability of an internship at the Boston Globe or the Philadelphia Inquirer, choosing instead to learn her reporting chops at little Wathingham, Maine’s, All Pointes Bulletin. But she had her reasons: she was a small pond girl at heart, and she intended to be the biggest fish in it. Had she gone with the Globe or the Enquirer she would be covering news that mattered to much of the world, but she would be the fourth journalist down on the left, in a cubicle listening to a hundred other journalists talk to sources and crank out stories with bylines nobody noticed. The ladder they climbed was steeper, and much more crowded. This way she could move back to Wathingham where her family lived and be a star. It would take time to reach the top, but not as much time. The All Pointes had a staff of only seven, including the part-time receptionist. It was a fiefdom she could find herself running in just a few years.
She wasn’t happy being assigned the obits, but it was part of the game she had to play. Everyone had to start somewhere, and it was the kind of assignment a new reporter was expected to do. The paper’s publisher and editor, a no-nonsense woman named Lucille Proctor, had taken a liking to Cayley when she’d known her casually as a high school student in town and Cayley’s journalism class had spent the day shadowing All Pointes reporters. Lucille accepted her internship application the day after it arrived. She could have said yes that same afternoon, but why seem too eager? Few young people as talented and determined as Cayley ever returned, and certainly showed no interest in internships at the All Pointes when they could cover celebrity drug overdoses for the L.A. Times, where it also happened to be warm most of the year.
Cayley had been reporting on dead people for almost a year now. She covered other things, too: local festivals, some interviews, and an occasional movie review for which she was reimbursed the cost of one ticket, a soda and a small popcorn. It was the opposite of glamorous. There was a time during the summer when Cayley questioned her decision to return to Wathingham. She’d posted a dozen death notices, contacted a few next of kin when something they’d submitted was questionably written or, in one case, to determine if the deceased was truly dead, since she swore she’d seen the man in the pharmacy the day before.
And then it happened: the call from her source. He sounded nervous—in fact, he sounded nervous every time she subsequently spoke to him, as if someone might hear them. They never emailed. He insisted all emails were read by the government, or at least by the employers of everyone sending them. He wanted nothing in writing, he said, he just wanted her to know what happened. But first, about that obituary you ran for Russell Drover …
“Russell Drover?” she’d said, trying to remember which one it was and when it was published. She had been sitting at her desk rewriting copy when the call came in, the last of the day to be transferred by Rudy, the part-time office guy. (Rudy was sweet, distracted and more interested in finding a girlfriend than furthering his career, which was why he was a part-time receptionist at twenty-six.)
“The old guy who owned the Cliff’s Edge outside of Lonesome Pointe,” the voice said, sounding as if he’d cupped his hand over the phone.
“The Cliff’s Edge …”
“Are you a reporter or a parrot?”
She’d almost hung up on him then. She’d been pranked a few times, always by kids who thought annoying strangers on the phone was hysterical. But something in his tone, his nervousness, made her take a deep breath and refrain from snapping.
“I’m a reporter, Mr …?”
“Never mind that,” he’d said. “I just called to tell you that you got it wrong.”
“Wrong?” she’d said, immediately regretting repeating him again.
She was sitting up now. She’d taken a pencil from an All Pointes coffee cup she used for them and poised it over a thin white reporter’s notebook. Something told her this was different, this had substance.
“He didn’t shoot himself like they said.”
“We didn’t say that either, Sir. Suicide never reads well in an obituary.”
“You think I’m playing with you, is that what you think?”
His sharpness startled her. She sensed she had to be careful if she wanted him to keep talking.
“Are you telling me he was killed by someone else?” she asked, still not recalling the obituary in question but certain it had said nothing about suicide. Families preferred to say “a sudden illness.” It didn’t matter now. She was being offered something she knew was bigger than the obituary beat, something people would talk about.
“He was murdered, yes,” the man said. This time his tone was flat, almost sad.
She waited a moment, letting him breathe while she decided how best to proceed. “Is there more, Sir? Is there something you’d like to tell me, like … who you believe killed Mr. Drover?”
“Oh, I know who killed him.”
Cayley felt the chill through the phone. Yes, she thought, yes, I’m sure you do know, but will you tell me? Pretty please? Or will this be difficult …
“And I know why,” he said. “It was because of what happened.”
“Yeah, what happened.”
Very carefully now: “When?”
“A long time ago.”
Excerpt Part II
LINDA SIKORSKY wasn’t looking forward to the drive to Maine but she would not tell Kirsten. It would take at least six hours, much of that in a storm the weather service had been warning about for the past week. She’d thought of suggesting they postpone the trip, but she knew the price for it would be days of sulking by Kirsten, delivered with a large side order of disappointment. Her wife had been planning this trip for two months, convinced it would be just what she needed to finish her first mystery, whose central character was transparently modeled after Linda. “The Rox Harmony Mysteries” had become Kirsten McClellan’s obsession. Linda was so relieved Kirsten had found a calling in retirement, even if writing was an avocation Linda thought put food on very few tables, that she withheld her reservations about a fictional lesbian detective based on her. Nor did she speak to Kirsten of the ego deflation that surely lay ahead in mixed reviews, unpredictable book sales and that small matter of finding a publisher. None of these things were worth causing Kirsten to fret more than she normally did. For Linda, just driving to Maine in terrible weather, after an unexpected delay caused by her mother’s emergency in Philadelphia, provided stress enough.
The women lived in a small house in Kingwood Township, New Jersey, that Linda had inherited from her Aunt Celeste. Her mother’s only sibling, Celeste had died on the back porch the spring before last, watering the flowers she’d kept for years in plastic beds hung from a wrought-iron railing surrounding the small space. There was just enough room on the porch for a table and four chairs. Linda had spent many Sunday mornings having coffee with her aunt after driving from New Hope, Pennsylvania, across the river into Jersey. She usually visited her mother the day before, making those weekends a sort of twofer: visit Mom one day, Aunt Celeste the next, and promise to be back in two weeks, three tops if something came up to delay her.
That “something” was sometimes homicide. Linda was then on the New Hope Police Force as its only female detective. She’d put in nearly twenty years, the last six in homicide, when Celeste died and left her the perfect place to retire: five acres of wooded land, a mile’s drive on 651 from the Delaware River. Timing, as Linda knew, was everything. She’d met Kirsten McClellan that January, inherited the house in September, and married Kirsten the following March. Now they were living very rural lives and slowly but surely adjusting to them.
Excerpt Part 3
On their way to a B & B in Maine, Linda and Kirsten are forced by the storm to stop at the Cliff’s Edge Motel.
LENNY SAW the car pull in. It was 7:30 p.m. now, dark and drenched outside as far as the eye could see, which was not far given the driving rain that had brought traffic to a standstill. The storm did not have a name but it was strong enough to be called something besides a Nor’easter. It deserved more respect than that. While it wasn’t an Irene or even a Sandy, it was a nasty one and it packed a punch. That’s why the Cliff’s Edge was almost full. Lenny had worked the front desk for the past six years and had only turned on the “No Vacancy” sign three or four times. This just wasn’t a place people looked for or added to their travel websites’ favorites list. It was exactly what he saw tonight: a place folks ended up because they had to. Just like the two women who came in as he watched from his stool—wet, unhappy and stamping their feet as if the water were snow they wanted off them.
“Evening,” Lenny said. “You ladies get stuck in the storm? Everybody else did.”
“Yes, we did,” Linda said. She regretted not bringing their rain ponchos, or at least a couple trash bags to put over themselves. Her jacket was soaked just getting from the car into the lobby, if it could be called that. It looked more like the front room in a house that should have been torn down decades ago.
“Well, you ladies are lucky tonight, let me tell you. I got one room left.”
Kirsten hung back. She was still stewing over not driving on to Cape Haven. She’d been relieved to get a cell phone signal in this weather, knowing it was hit and miss. It wasn’t great but it was good enough for her to tell the desk clerk they had to stop two hours short of Serenity House and they’d be there first thing tomorrow. The clerk curtly told her she would have to charge them for the night. Kirsten said go ahead, then filed it away for her Yelp review. She had no problem being charged, but she didn’t care for being spoken to as if she’d inconvenienced someone with nothing else to do.
Linda looked at the skinny man behind the counter. She hoped he would not call them “ladies” again. She disliked the term and found it patronizing. Coming from someone who looked like his other job was pumping gas at the only station for twenty miles made it seem smug and deliberate.
“We’ll take it,” Kirsten said, stepping up next to Linda. She’d sensed her wife’s hesitation, as if they had any choice but to check into the Cliff’s Edge and get the hell out at sunrise. She just wanted to get into a room, settle in and fire up her laptop for some revisions on Bermuda Shots.
The clerk reached under the counter and brought up a key attached to a diamond-shaped piece of plastic with the number 7 on it.
“Last room at the Cliff’s Edge,” he said. “Lucky, lucky.”
Linda had the distinct feeling their luck had run out, being forced into a rundown motel in the middle of somewhere.
“What town is this?” Linda asked, unsure they were even in a town.
“If it had a name,” Lenny said, “It’d be Unincorporated. Nearest town is Lonesome Pointe, about three miles from here. That be cash or charge?”
Linda was surprised: she’d never stayed in a motel that took cash.
She pulled her wallet from her purse, slipped out a corporate AmEx and handed it to him.
“I’m Linda Sikorsky,” she said. “And this is Kirsten, my … ”
“Friend,” said Lenny, winking at her.
Linda cursed herself and hoped Kirsten hadn’t noticed the exchange. She glanced to the side and saw her furiously trying to get an internet connection on her phone. Good, the conversation had been ignored. She hated it that she was still uncomfortable referring to Kirsten as her wife. It had taken her months to get used to partner, and spouse was just too … animal-husbandry. She had to get past this. What difference did it make that some creepy desk clerk might disapprove of lesbians?
“Something like that,” Linda replied, knowing Lenny had pegged them as a couple.
“Is there WiFi in the room?” Kirsten asked, frustrated at being cut off from the virtual world. The phone call to Serenity House was the last connection she’d had.
Lenny spoke patiently and slowly, as if to an uncomprehending child. “No,” he said. “We don’t have no internet connection here. This ain’t Portland. But we got TVs you can watch. Not sure what kind of picture you’ll get in this rain …”
“So it’s not cable?”
Lenny did not respond, believing he’d made his point well enough. If the Cliff’s Edge did not have an internet connection, why in the world would they have cable for the few people who stayed here? Mostly they came from surrounding towns to have sex with their secretaries or someone else’s husband. Nobody had time for HBO.
“No,” Linda said, answering for him. “I don’t imagine it is. Let’s just get our stuff from the car and settle in. It’s going to be a long night. Isn’t that right …?”
“Lenny,” he said, handing her the credit card receipt to sign. “
“Does Lenny have a last name?” Linda asked.
Lenny felt the hair on his arms rise. The woman was not smiling, and there was an intensity in her eyes he didn’t like. That’s how predators looked at their prey. He knew, he was one. He’d looked at countless teenage girls and a few of the boys that way, usually before he got them high on something and screwed them. And he’d looked at old man Drover that way just before he’d put a hole in his chest. The girl reporter, too. But she was still in the queue. He suddenly didn’t like putting these women next to the room Cayley Drees was in, but he didn’t have any choice. It was the last room, after all. He’d be extra careful when he slipped into #6 sometime after midnight.
“You can just call me Lenny,” he said. He was glad he’d talked Russell out of making him wear a name tag. What did the old fool think he was, a bellboy?
“Lenny it is,” said Linda, handing him the signed receipt and taking the key.
“You ladies have a good night. And if you need anything, come on down.”
“I can’t call you from the room?” Kirsten asked as they were about to head back to the car.
“Phone works sometimes, but there’s no intercom or nothing,” Lenny said.
“Of course not,” Kirsten replied. “Why would there be?”
Linda pulled the door open and held it for Kirsten. Rain flew into the lobby in the moment it took them to leave. Walking back into it was like walking into a powerful showerhead aimed directly at their faces. They got the last room, and they’d taken the last parking space, which meant they had to grab their belongings—none of which Kirsten was willing to leave in the car at this fine establishment—and hurry down the long motel front to room #7. Hopefully nothing would be damaged by the rain.
Lenny watched the door close. It was a lie they didn’t have internet access. They just didn’t have it for anyone but him, in the back apartment where Russell Drover had lived and where Lenny enjoyed his new life alone. Linda Sikorsky. He hadn’t asked for her driver’s license so he didn’t know where she lived, but he could get the state off her license plate. He planned to see if he could find out anything about her online. There was something chilling in the way her manner had changed while they were at the desk, as if she, too, had sensed something about him. Two snakes who’d come upon each other in the tall grass. He had the unsettling feeling one of them would be eating the other. He hoped not; he did not want to draw attention to himself or, by extension, his employer. He wanted to take care of the reporter, see the women off in the morning when they turned in the key, and wait for it all to blow over. There was a fat paycheck and an extended stay in Puerto Vallarta on the other side.
In this gritty, fast-paced debut thriller, an ex-con biker chick turned law-abiding citizen risks everything to save her new life—and confront the demons of her past.
Shea Stevens is biker royalty. Her father was the president of the Confederate Thunder Motorcycle Club. Under his watchful eye, she learned how to pick locks, disable alarms, and hot-wire cars like a pro. But all that is ancient history. Or so she thought . . .
After a stint in prison, Shea has worked hard to make a quiet, happy life for herself in Arizona. She spends her time bonding with her big-city girlfriend and running her bike shop, Iron Goddess Custom Cycles, with her dedicated team of misfits. But when one of her employees is shot and three of her specially commissioned bikes are stolen, Shea’s new life collides with the criminal underworld she tried to leave behind.
Shea knows better than to trust the police. So, with her Glock on her hip, she takes the investigation into her own hands. Shea’s search for the bike thieves leads her straight to her father’s old gang—and her estranged sister, whose young daughter has been kidnapped by a rival club. The last thing Shea wants is to be caught in the middle of a war—but if she learned one thing from her old man, it’s that when someone comes at you, you push back. Hard. And that’s exactly what she’s going to do.
Sparks exploded from the left footpeg of Shea Stevens’ motorcycle as it scraped against the pavement. She was going too fast through the curves that twisted up the south side of Sycamore Mountain. The road was dark—daybreak still an hour away. Getting up close and personal with an elk at sixty miles an hour would be disastrous. But Shea was in a hurry.
She tried to convince herself the call from the security company was another false alarm—a rat looking for a crumb, or maybe a glitch in the sensors. But she couldn’t shake the fear that someone had broken into the shop. If the three custom motorcycles they’d finished the night before were stolen, it would be a quarter-million-dollar loss.
Please, God, let it be another false alarm.
The cold air blasting through the vents in her jacket caused her teeth to chatter. In her rush to alleviate her paranoia, she’d thrown on her jeans and T-shirt from the night before. Didn’t bother with a bra. Her only precaution had been the .40-caliber Glock she’d slipped into a pancake holster at the small of her back.
Fifteen minutes later, her bike crested the hill and reached what the residents of Sycamore Springs, Arizona, call Olde Towne—a mile-long strip of locally owned shops including a café, a pharmacy, an antiques shop, and Iron Goddess Custom Cycles—her destination.
She screeched to a stop in front of the cycle shop, killed the engine, and ripped off her helmet. The pungent scent of creosote mixed with dead skunk made her nose crinkle. Moonlight reflected off the desert dust on the plate glass window, obscuring the Iron Goddess logo. Her gaze shifted left to the shop’s front door. Shards of glass clung to the doorframe like broken teeth.
“Fuck.” Her hands tightened into fists. She wanted to beat someone.
She climbed off the bike and scanned the street, hoping to spot the intruder skulking through Olde Towne. Fifty feet away at the Kokopelli Café, a Coca-Cola sign flickered on and off. Across the street, a security gate sliced the blue light of a fifties-era jukebox glowing from within the antiques shop. The rest of Olde Towne’s shops slumbered in darkness.
She dug a flashlight out of her tank bag and drew the Glock, turning her attention back to Iron Goddess. She crept onto the cement porch, paused outside the door, and listened for anyone who might be inside. Somewhere in the darkness, a pack of coyotes performed a predawn symphony of yips and high-pitched howls over a recent kill. Two delivery trucks roared past three minutes apart. But no voices or sounds of crunching glass came from inside Iron Goddess. If anyone was in there, they may have hunkered down when they heard her motorcycle. She had to find out for sure.
Drops of a dark liquid on the concrete caught her attention. Was it oil or blood? She brushed it with a finger, creating a crimson smear. Blood. Her pulse quickened.
She pulled on the door handle. It was unlocked. Thief must’ve reached in and unlocked it after breaking the glass. She scolded herself for not getting a double-cylinder lock.
After slipping in through the door, she scanned the place with her flashlight. Tiny bits of glass sparkled like jewels across the floor. A bowling ball–sized rock lay near the front sales counter. The familiar industrial smell of the showroom mixed with the organic tang of blood. Her fist tightened on the grip of the gun.
More drops of blood led off to the right. She considered turning on the lights, but didn’t want to blow what little stealth she had left. Broken glass crunched under her boots with each step. Moving slower didn’t make it any quieter.
She followed the trail of blood around the counter to where three custom-ordered bikes and several production bikes had been parked hours earlier; they were now gone.
Clothing racks for motorcycle jackets and pants had been cleared. Empty hangers lay scattered on the floor. Shelves that once displayed helmets, boots, and other gear had been stripped bare.
Shea felt sucker-punched. Her mind kept telling her it was a dream.
Her heart leapt into her throat when someone coughed and moaned. She ducked down until she heard it again. Her finger slipped onto the trigger. She swung the flashlight around and found a man lying on the floor in the motor oil aisle. She approached cautiously, ignoring the pulse pounding in her ears.
With the light on the man’s face, she recognized him as Derek Williams, one of her employees.
She slapped on the overhead lights. Derek was a scrawny guy, just shy of his twentieth birthday. His stubbly face was pale and clammy. Blood covered his shirt, pooling on the floor around his chest.
“Aw shit, Derek!” She holstered her gun and knelt down next to him.
He opened his eyes for a moment. “They made me,” he wheezed before coughing up blood.
“Who? Who did this to you?”
His eyes lost focus and closed.
She checked his pulse. Her own heart beat so fast she couldn’t tell if he had a pulse or not. She pulled out her phone.
“Cortes County 911—what’s your emergency?”
“I need an ambulance at Iron Goddess Custom Cycles, 8234 South Sycamore Highway. My friend is bleeding.”
“How is he injured, ma’am?”
“I . . . I don’t know. I just found him. He’s got blood all over his chest. I think someone shot him.”
“Is he breathing?”
“Uh . . . let me check.” She put her ear to his mouth and could hear shallow, gurgling breaths. “He’s breathing, but barely.”
“We’ve dispatched an ambulance. It’ll be there momentarily.”
Shea hung up the phone and checked his pulse again. It was there, but weak. Then it stopped. She struggled to remember the lessons from a CPR course two years earlier. She clasped her hands and compressed in the center of his chest. Blood gushed from his wounds. That wasn’t in the course.
She lifted up his shirt. His chest was smeared with blood. She wiped away as much as she could. Dark liquid oozed from two dime-sized wounds, one right above his heart, the other closer to his left shoulder.
His shirt was soaked. Wouldn’t work to stop the blood, even if she could get it off him. Shea looked for something else to use. The nearby shelves were stocked with bottles of motor oil, industrial cleaners, and cans of chain lube. No shop cloths or clothing.
She scrambled out of her jacket, pulled off her shirt, and twisted it into a tight wad. She pressed it over the wounds and compressed his chest again. The T-shirt kept the bleeding to a minimum. She continued pumping his chest. “Come on, Derek. Gimme a heartbeat.”
After fifty compressions, she checked again. Still no pulse. She continued pounding on his chest, desperately trying to minimize the bleeding and hoping the EMTs would arrive before she ran out of energy.
Her back was beginning to cramp up when the silver bell on the front door jingled.
“Over here!” she yelled.
Two deputies rushed in, guns pointed at her.
“Sheriff’s Office! Get on the floor. Hands behind your head.”
When her two-year-old niece is kidnapped, Major Crimes Detective Ann McCoy uses every bit of leverage she has with Agent Cal Davis to stay on the case. More children are missing. Their parents, like Ann’s sister and her wife, are desperate for answers. While the investigators look at the disturbing possibilities, a pattern emerges. They find an organization hidden in plain sight that has no boundaries when it comes to pushing their agenda- even at the cost of harming families and children.
The world has lost its colors, or so it seems to Chrissie in her medicated state. Voices, faces, emotions are all tinged in grey. She didn’t want to calm down or relax, fall for a treacherous illusion, but she just couldn’t stop shaking and sobbing. She’d seen the fear on Rachel’s face and that made her give in. She agreed to lie down for a bit, and Rachel stayed with her. Rachel is different. She doesn’t show a lot of emotion in a crisis, so when Chrissie realized how scared she was, for her, she let the doctor do his job. There’s no time to be scared for each other, when the fear for Rosie takes over every conscious thought. Chrissie doesn’t tell anyone she feels even worse in the cocoon of drugs, like she’s walking around in a nightmare that she can’t wake up from. She prays that the man who took Rosie won’t harm her. There will be a call, a demand for a ransom, they will pay it and get her back. Rachel’s Dad has contacted his bank, and they are ready to act, whatever plan the police have. When is the man going to make the damn call? Something springs to mind, and she sits up, looking at Rachel in alarm. “I snapped at her this morning! Why did I do that? What if we never see her again?” “You didn’t snap. Don’t do that.” Rachel brushes her hand over her hair gently, a tiny bit of comfort in a reality that has shifted in a disturbing way. “Rosie will be here soon.” “She’s scared around strangers.” “Yes, I know,” Rachel says, her arms tightening around Chrissie. “I’m so sorry.” “Chrissie, don’t. It’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault.” She can’t just lie here and wait. It’s not fair to Rosie, or Rachel. She needs to stay awake, alert, preferably without another nervous breakdown. It’s hard, because whenever Chrissie pictures what happened in the park, her eyes well up and her heart clenches painfully. She can’t be without Rosie, and neither can Rachel. “I want to get up and call Ann. Maybe she knows more.” “If she did,” Rachel says softly, “don’t you think she would have called already?” Reason is the last thing Chrissie wants to deal with right now. “Did we really think of all the parents from the center?” “I gave the police all the names. Not that I think any of them would kidnap a little girl.” “What if it’s a relative of one of them, someone who needs money?” Chrissie thinks it’s not such a bad theory, and she’s continually warming to it. They know all the parents who send their kids to the center. They are good people with whom she and Rachel have shared proud moments, worries and cookie recipes. By proxy, Chrissie is willing to grant any relative of theirs can’t be pure evil. It could be a glitch of reason, a desperate situation maybe that has driven them to commit a crime. Make no mistake–once they find the man, she still wants to kick him, hard, where it hurts the most. It seems only fair. “The police will look into that,” Rachel reminds her. “True!” Chrissie says with renewed resolve that’s somehow breaking through the drugged haze she’s been in. “They’ll go through credit records and stuff. If one of them has an SUV like Deb saw, they’ll find him real soon.” “I’m sure.” Rachel smiles at her, as they hold on to each other’s hand. Chrissie can tell how hard it is for her. “I love you,” she says. “I love you too.” Rachel leans forward against Chrissie’s shoulder, trembling. She’s crying quietly. If there’s anything that will get them through this, it’s this certainty. Rosie will be fine. That is all there is to say, or think.
* * * *
The trace has been set up, but there has been no ransom call yet as time is ticking away. I don’t need anybody to tell me this is not good. There are dumb, small-time criminals who think a kidnapping is easy money. There are people so desperate to have a child that they break the law in order to try and have one. Then, there’s the snake-pit. Cal has been quick to set up a task force, and his people are all highly skilled professionals. Well, so are we at Major Crimes. There are cops out in the field to organize volunteers for a search. The media has been informed, and an Amber Alert has been issued. On the other hand, the colleagues at Chrissie’s and Rachel’s house are instructed to keep reporters away from them. They want to control what information is given out at this point. Cal’s already been in a shouting match with Rachel’s Dad, because he wants a TV appearance in order to appeal to the kidnapper. Here, within the core of the investigation taking place at headquarters, I’ve been stuck with a dozen others, mostly FBI. They don’t sugarcoat the possibilities. They’re talking all possible areas, pedophiles, sex trafficking networks. I want to shoot somebody. Cal’s look at me doesn’t quite say “You asked for this”, but it’s “I told you so” at best. I square my shoulders. He’s right, I asked to be here, and I’m going to do my job. “Are those theories, worst case scenarios, or do you have actual proof that any of those groups is operating in this area?” I ask, proud of how calm my voice is, not giving away the rage inside. Special Agent Martinez points to the map behind her. “Unfortunately, hard proof is lacking. What we do know is that there’s been an increase in missing children. We’ve been reaching out to informants and undercover agents to identify any new players–” I feel sick at her choice of words, even though I don’t blame her. If I didn’t know Rosie, the use of the same detached language would be instinctive. “No luck so far.” I struggle to make sense of her words. I know they have their statistics. Those numbers aren’t conclusive to determine that the criminal landscape has changed, is there? “How long until you know for sure?” “Hard to say.” She casts me an apologetic glance. “We’ve seen these numbers increase over the past two months, within a rather wide area. We don’t know yet what this means.” I feel lightheaded. Two months? No. We need results sooner than that. There’s no way–I stop myself. I’m a guest here, and I’m not invited to criticize their proceedings. “How many?” She points to the map again. “There were five in this area in a matter of weeks, children between the ages of three months and six years. Two were taken from their homes. Before you ask, there’s no relation whatsoever between these families. This is definitely orchestrated by professionals.” “The kindergarten teacher saw the kidnapper. I wouldn’t call that a pro job.” Martinez shrugs. “We’d appreciate it if they started making mistakes this early in the game.” The cop in me agrees. Never mind it was my first impulse to shake her. It’s not Martinez’ fault–she is doing her job. Words have a different meaning when a case concerns you personally, and I don’t like the word “game”. My sensibilities don’t matter here though. We’re on the same side. I press my hand against my forehead, feeling a massive headache building. Where can we go from this? I give myself the answer. Initial responses are in motion. We’ll have to wait, for a ransom, a witness calling in, anything. I recall the last time I’ve seen Rosie, only yesterday, about to fall asleep on my lap. She’s such a smart and happy child. Her family and the little group in the daycare center are her whole world. She must be terrified. Hell, I am terrified, because with each minute ticking by, I have to give up the idea that the person who took her will show any regard whatsoever for her well-being. Whatever happens, though, that person will have to answer to me, and there’s going to be hell to pay.