A Sarah Cross Legal Thriller
About the book
Because her biggest fear has returned to haunt her. And this time, it won't hesitate...
As prosecutor Sarah Cross discovers, it is entirely possible for a child’s disappearance to evolve into the most impossible case of her career.
Especially when her higher-ups seem determined to silence her at all costs. As more and more children go missing, Sarah must recruit the help of her co-worker, Lee, who suspects her for everything.
As Lee starts acting strangely, Sarah is forced to face her greatest fear: when the body of a child is discovered, pulling back the white sheet just might bring her before the dead eyes of her own daughter.
As we sped through the late morning traffic, I was reminded why it wasn’t wise to let Lee Black drive. His style was best described as suicidal. He overtook and undertook, scything across lanes to reach an exit, ignorant of the sounds of anger and distress he left in his wake. I sat with one hand braced against the dash, every muscle tense.
“Lee, for Christ’s sake, slow down,” I finally said.
I was in my usual armor, pale gray trouser suit, hair tied back. For once my skin bore a healthy tan, legacy of the vacation to Lake Tahoe Vicky and I had just returned from. Lee had tossed his jacket across the back seat as he got into the car and was driving in a dark blue shirt with matching pants and a pale blue tie. His round face, normally quick to smile, was set and hard.
“You’re kidding,” he said, tightly.
“No, I don’t want to go home tonight via the emergency room. She’s dead, Lee.”
The car hurtled down an off-ramp and through a red light. We were in north-east Silver City, heading north along McKinley Avenue. To one side was Kinsman, a warren of decrepit buildings and desperate people. On the other was Hunter’s, where the majority of the Latino population of Silver City lived. The car slowed, but I thought it had more to do with Lee looking for the correct turn.
“I know that. I just want this done,” he muttered.
“I know,” I said quietly, trying to show that I understood. “We both have a lot invested in this case. It’s been a tough two weeks. But we both knew how it was likely to end.”
“Yes, yes,” Lee said impatiently. “I know the stats. After twenty-four hours, the chances of finding a missing person alive drops.”
“Especially when it’s a child.”
“I guess the cases involving children get to me more.”
More than what? In ten years, I’d never known Lee touched by a case. He was teflon; nothing stuck to him.
Lee turned right, leaving the McKinley, one of the city’s arteries, and heading into Hunter’s Park. The street we followed was residential, the lots divided by chain link fencing, the houses single-story and wood-framed. Men and women sat on porches or in driveways. Older residents sat alone or in couples, younger seemed to congregate. I saw bottles in hands and smoke that I doubted was tobacco. This was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Silver City; I couldn’t blame these people their attempt at escape.
“They get to me too, Lee. We need to be detached or we can’t do our jobs.” I sounded like a bitch and I knew it. I also knew that in the police precincts and my own office, I was nicknamed the Ice Queen. It didn’t matter to me.
Lee nodded. “Light me a cigarette, would you?” was all he said.
I reached for my own pack, lighting one for him and handing it to him. I lit one for myself and watched the neighborhood go by. Heads turned to follow us, hostile stares bouncing off the car like bullets. Lee’s car carried no police marking, but they knew. Ahead, I saw police lights around a corner. Red and blue strobed and two SCPD cruisers blocked the street. A uniformed cop stood in the middle of the road, flagging us down. Lee unwound his window and held out his badge.
“Over to the left, Lieutenant,” said the young cop assigned to direct the traffic. “Just park on the sidewalk. Well, where there should be a sidewalk. Not much room.”
The street was narrow, and now crowded with police vehicles. No sign yet of an ambulance. To one side of the street was a line of houses, then a strip of browning grass and weeds where a paved sidewalk would have been. To the other side was a vacant lot, thick with undergrowth which had overrun whatever had been there originally. As I got out of the car, I caught a glimpse of something white on the ground in amongst the weeds, like a sheet.
“Who’s in charge?” Lee asked as we strode across the street towards the crime scene.
“I am,” said a man heading the other way. He wore a tweed jacket that didn’t match his pants, and a shirt with a curling collar. He had gray in his hair and full beard and was taking off a pair of spectacles as we approached. “Least I was, Lieutenant.” He put out a hand.
“Hi, Rog,” Lee greeted. “You met Sarah Cross from the DA’s office?”
“No. Pleasure. Roger Kelvin. Creekside Precinct.” He introduced himself. Roger’s voice was deep and slow, but his eyes were sharp and quick moving.
“We got the body of a thirteen-year-old girl. Found by kids playing in the lot over there. It’s pretty bad.”
Lee nodded, staring towards the shrouded white shape on the ground with a haunted look.
“But then, when is it not when kids are involved?” Roger added.
“We’re on a missing child case. Two weeks old,” I told him, knowing the conclusion he would reach on being told how old the case was. “Thirteen-year-old girl from the South side.”
We were making our way through and around the weeds, some of which towered above my head, others seeking to snag themselves on whatever they could reach. A police photographer was taking pictures around the covered shape. I could see that the sheet that been used was developing red stains. My stomach turned over.
“You don’t have a scene of crime tent?” Lee asked sharply.
“Oh, we got a couple. But they’re being used. We don’t have the kind of budget you high-flyers downtown get,” Roger said unapologetically.
“CSI?” Lee asked, crouching beside the shape and lifting a corner.
“On their way. In the meantime, we’re just getting the scene sealed and documented. Is that your girl?” Roger asked, his voice dropping.
I didn’t need to hear Lee’s reply. We had found our missing child.
The girl’s name was Alanna Sheen. She was thirteen and she had been reported missing by her mother. That had been fifteen days ago. Lee and I had been assigned to the case when it began to draw media attention, fueled by Alanna’s aunts, her mother’s sisters.
Larry had offered my services and Lee was still high enough in Chief Macey’s estimation; a year ago, we had found the man who had assaulted her daughter, that she had requested he be assigned the case Homicide.
Her father was in a federal penitentiary, serving a life sentence for his part in a drive-by shooting. Her mother worked three jobs to support her family, Alanna earning money for the family through babysitting. Both she and her older sister had effectively dropped out of school to earn money.
And then there was the stepfather.
“You coming?” Lee asked as he stepped out of the elevator.
I had stopped just out of the doors. The corridor was lit by fluorescent lights set into the ceiling. The floor was tiled and wet, a plastic yellow sign alerting to the fact. There was a strong smell of disinfectant. At the end of the hallway was a set of double doors that Lee was making for. They concealed the gateway to hell as far as I was concerned. I didn’t do well with blood.
“I can’t,” I forced myself to admit. “Sorry.”
Lee gave me a mocking smile, his usual sardonic self shining through the mood he had been in, just for a moment.
“Sorry, I forgot. You did well at the crime scene, though. Proud of you, sister.”
“Just get in there, jackass,” I told him, taking a seat on a padded metal framed seat which stood against one wall, next to a table bearing medical magazines.
He gave me a salute, but I saw the grin slip before he turned all the way around. His smile was only skin deep. Can’t blame him. When I had seen that poor girl, all I could think about was Vicky. Alanna wasn’t that much older than Vicky.
As Lee disappeared behind the swinging doors leading to the autopsy room, I took the casefile out of my shoulder bag, putting the bag on the tiled floor at my feet. I tried to ignore the smell which was making my stomach turn over slow somersaults. The smell of an environment regularly scoured with industrial strength cleaners. God, I hate morgues!
I focused on the detail of the case, trying to forget what Lee would be seeing in the other room. Alanna had been tall for her age, thin and pretty with olive-colored skin and long dark hair. Her school picture was pinned to the first page. She had braces and glasses with bright red frames.
Her smile lit up her face. I didn’t need to familiarize myself with the details; I knew the file by heart, but I needed something to focus on. She was a rare blood type, AB Negative. About one percent of the country had the same.
I turned the page, coming to Antonio Charles Munez, known as AC to those unlucky enough to be considered friends. Alanna’s stepfather. Late thirties, gang affiliation, in and out of prison. All for violent crimes, including domestic abuse.
“What were you doing with him?” I said under my breath, a question directed at Alanna’s mother.
My phone suddenly rang and I almost jumped out of my skin. I stared at it for a moment, heart hammering to break out of my chest. It was Larry Croix-Toney. District Attorney for Silver City and my boss. I got up, making for the elevator. The sudden fright had left me with an overwhelming urge to smoke.
A conversation with Larry had a similar effect. I let the call go to voicemail as I rode the elevator, hitting recall as I walked out through the reception area of the Medical Examiner’s offices.
Outside was an expanse of immaculate landscaped lawns, currently blooming with color. I held the phone under my chin as I lit a cigarette and added to the air pollution.
“Larry, sorry. I was in an elevator.”
“What have you got for me on the Alanna Sheen case?” he asked without preamble. I could hear him chewing gum.
“We found her body. Some kids in Hunter’s Park found her. She had been dumped on a vacant lot.”
“Shit.” Larry’s first thought would be for his image. “How did she die?”
“Badly. Cause of death was a severed artery, long bladed knife. She had been stabbed multiple times. Looked like a frenzied attack.”
It helped to describe the injuries I had briefly seen in clinical terms. It bleached the image which had been seared into my brain. I watched blue cigarette smoke drift in front of blue sky and tried to clear my mind.
“The media are going to be all over us. Those damn women are making this viral.”
He referred to Marie and Theresa, aunts to Alanna and the drivers of an online campaign that had the local media whipped into a feeding frenzy.
“Can’t say I blame them.” I commented.
“Come on, Sarah. Team player,” Larry complained.
I didn’t reply, choosing to ignore the reprimand.
“Any suspects?” Larry asked shortly.
“Stepfather. History of violence and domestic abuse. Alanna’s mother kicked him out about a month ago.”
“You think this was revenge?” Larry asked.
“Could be,” I replied.
“Alright. Go after him. I’ll speak to Dagher about getting you some extra officers.”
Larry’s use of Chief Macey’s first name was supposed to impress me. It didn’t.
I saw Lee coming out of the building. “Thanks, Larry. I have to go. We’re going to his house now.”
I hung up and walked to meet Lee. His face was pale and drawn. He ran a hand through his sculpted hair, disrupting the carefully waxed style. For once, he didn’t seem to notice. He had a cigarette in his mouth unlit, as though he had forgotten it was there. I flicked open my lighter and held it out.
“No, thanks,” he said, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and discarding it.
“Well, what did Krieg say?” I asked.
Rachel Krieg was the chief medical examiner for Silver City, a woman of compassion and dedication to her work. I liked her, but not enough to brave a meeting while she was at her gruesome work.
“She confirmed what the coroner told us at the scene. A long-bladed knife, very sharp. She suggested a bayonet. And at least thirty blows to the torso.”
Lee reached into his pocket for a pack of smokes, seemingly forgetting the cigarette he had thrown away.
“She’s been dead for about three days, and had been well-fed until that point.”
We started for the car. Lee’s reaction shook me. He never gives this much away. He never lets anything touch him this deeply.
As we reached the car, he made for the driver’s door and then stopped. He looked at me for a moment, his mouth tugging at the corner.
“You drive,” he said.
“So, we going after AC Munez?” he asked.
“That’s the plan. He’s our main suspect. You want to call in backup?”
“I should,” Lee said as he got into the car. He had his gun out and was checking the magazine, slapping it back into the butt hard before holstering the weapon, safety off.
“Must have been bad,” I said as I started the car.
“The worst,” Lee said. There was murder on his face.
AC Munez’s last known address was in Hunter’s Park. We drove in silence. Lee stared out through the windshield, but I don’t think he was seeing the city around us.
“Lee, I’m the last person who should be saying this, but it’s not healthy to keep stuff bottled up. I know this case has affected you.”
“I’ve seen dead kids before. I’ve worked in homicide a long time,” he replied.
“What about a kidnapping?”
He looked at me, raising an eyebrow. “That makes a difference?”
“Maybe. I can’t help but think about what that poor girl went through.”
He looked away. “I can’t think about that.”
I gripped the wheel, digging my nails into the fabric in frustration. “You clearly are, though. Damn it, Lee. It’s all I can do to shut you up most of the time.”
He barked a mirthless laugh. “Okay, so Dr Krieg confirmed that the wounds were most likely made by a butcher knife or a bayonet. Long and sharp.”
I decided to ignore the brutal change of subject. Lee didn’t want to open up. Okay, Lee, let’s keep it strictly business. I shut down my own emotions and focused on the report I had read.
“Both are weapons known to be used by the Zeros, as is the high degree of violence.”
“And AC Munez is a known Zeros member,” Lee continued.
The journey across town, from west to east, was dispiriting. I watched the character of the city change. From affluent and glossy commercialism, with its landscaping and bright signage, to dilapidated and without hope. At least, that’s how it felt right now.
The signage above the stores became faded, and in some cases absent, empty buildings stood out like gapped teeth. If money was a river, it was flowing away to the west and the east of the city was in a drought. Especially in the north.
“We have a possible motive. Revenge for being dumped,” I said.
“Yeah, because that’s always a good reason to tear up an innocent girl,” Lee commented.
“It may be for a man like Munez,” I reasoned. “Street gangs have a kind of twisted honor.”
“No, honey, that’s just men,” Lee drawled. It was the old sarcastic Lee peeking through again.
“Well, not my problem anymore,” I laughed. “Not for the last six months.”
“Take my advice, not for a long time to come.”
“You have an extensive experience of men, do you?” I asked, archly.
“No, but I know divorce lawyers intimately.”
We were entering Hunter’s Park now. Lee casually wound down his window, reached up and removed the bubble from the roof of the car, dropping it in the footwell.
“I think we stand out as cops enough without the party hat,” he said as explanation.
“Is Hal going to be joining us?” I asked.
“He’s on his way…” Lee began. “Well, speak of the devil and he shall appear.” He took out his phone in response to a chiming. “Hal, we’re on Montoya turning into Lincoln, heading north. You’re there? Sit tight, we’re…”
He glanced at me. “Two minutes,” I said, reading from the GPS.
“Hear that? Good.”
He hung up. “Hal’s in position; house looks quiet, he thinks there’s nobody home.”
“Lee, it’s one in the afternoon. He’s probably at work right now,” I said innocently.
“Sure,” came the sardonic reply.
We turned off Lincoln Avenue, passing between a pair of mock marble posts intended to represent a grand gateway. They were stained by pollution and spray paint. The street within, Cheyenne Street, was sinuous and lined with cars.
Houses had the look of fortresses, with one in two covering their windows with wire mesh or padlocked shutters. As we rounded the first bend, I saw Hal’s car and pulled in opposite him. Munez house was in front of us, facing us from across another bend in the street. There was no car or truck in the driveway, and the windows were dark.
We got out. Lee and Hal led the way across to the house. From behind us, male voices rose in catcalls, gang members who could smell a cop from a mile away. Lee pounded on the front door without ceremony.
“Munez! This is the police.”
Silence. Lee made a quick motion and Hal quietly headed up the side of the house. There was a sound of scuffling as he scaled the locked gate, then hit the concrete on the other side. Lee looked a question at me, drawing his weapon.
“We have probable cause. We don’t need a warrant,” I told him.
He nodded, stepped back, and kicked the door in. One kick was all it took. The door flew in to rebound against the wall. Lee stopped it with his back as he stepped in. I kept in his shadow. Inside was a hallway with bare boards.
A doorway, covered by a gray blanket nailed to the top of the frame, stood to our immediate right, corresponding to a window beside the front door. Living room. Another doorway, empty of door or any kind of covering, stood next to it.
Its interior was dark. Ahead of us was a kitchen and a set of stairs. I saw Hal through the dirty glass that made up half of the back door, taking up position for anyone who might try and leave the building that way.
“Munez! If you’re in here, do yourself a favor and sing out. Cause I’ve got one helluva twitch in my trigger finger.”
I stepped to the blanketed doorway, keeping myself against the wall and reaching out carefully to pull the blanket aside as Lee took position at the other side. I yanked the blanket hard, tearing half of it free of the nails, and Lee dove inside. At that moment, a huge man came out of the darkness in the next room, a long blade raised high above his head, face contorted in hate.
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