The line at Heavenly Treats is outrageous. Detective Rachel Carrington only wants her grande iced macchiato with extra whip. For Christ’s sake, she thinks. She begins to tap her foot while she crosses her arms over her chest in frustration. Rachel is far from being called a patient person. She works in one mode—overdrive. This atrocious line has her skin crawling as frustration mixed with anger begins to take control of her. A quick glance at her left wrist has her rolling her eyes. She’ll be late to work if the line doesn’t start moving soon. Biting her bottom lip, she makes a decision. Going to the precinct without caffeine is not an option.
“Excuse me,” she says as she begins to push through the crowd of people. At least she has the decency to use apologetic phrases. “Sorry, pardon me,” she says, bumping and pushing several more customers before reaching the counter.
“I need a grande iced macchiato with extra whip.” She blows a piece of loose hair from her face as she leans against the counter, heaving air in and out of her lungs.
Angry patrons moan and complain from behind. “Ma’am, you’ll have to wait your turn,” says the pimply-faced teen behind the counter. The boy couldn’t be more than a day over eighteen, if even that.
Growing angrier by the second, Rachel slaps her department issued, gold badge on the counter. “I’m sorry; I’ll have to do what exactly?” She stares at the pubescent prick before her. She’s never liked being told what to do. “Look, I don’t have time for this shit. Get working on my drink,” she says to the kid, not taking her eyes off of him. He tries to hold eye contact with her, but he loses in a matter of seconds.
After hitting some buttons on the register, he makes eye contact with her for just a moment. “That’ll be four eighty-five.” If he didn’t have such control, he’d surely be shaking in his boots—sneakers.
She slaps a ten note down on the counter. “Keep the change.” She may not have patience, but she does have a heart. What she’s just done means that the kid behind the counter will have to listen to complaining for the next fifteen minutes. The least she can do for him is tip him well.
She grabs her cup and takes a long swig. A half smile forms as the caffeine hits her tongue. The sweet caramel treat makes her mouth happy and slowly changes her attitude. How in the hell someone can survive a day without this piece of heaven perplexes her. She’s been running on caffeine since she was a rookie at the age of twenty-one. Fourteen years later and her love for caffeine has turned into a need.
She quickens her pace to the office. She never fails; she’s always running late. She seems to run even later after she closes a case. The case of Molly Humphrey lasted damn near a week before they found the three-year-old’s body in the quarry just outside of town. She had worked twenty hours a day and prayed to a God she didn’t believe in that Molly would be found safe. Yet again, her prayers were left unanswered. Molly was found face down in the quarry. Her body was badly beaten and there were signs of sexual assault.
The entire department grieved for little Molly, but Rachel grieved the hardest. After the little one had been discovered, she began working tirelessly on finding her killer. Twenty-hour shifts turned into twenty-four-hour shifts living only on caffeine and crappy takeout food. Rachel almost lost her composure when all the evidence pointed to the mother’s new boyfriend. It wasn’t until they had him in custody and Rachel had a ‘friendly’ conversation with the sick sonofabitch that she was able to sleep through the night.
She came close to killing the sonofabitch right there in the interrogation room when they had him in custody. She hated that she nearly lost control, but damn, under the circumstances, even the most sane of people would’ve been tempted to cut a testicle—or two—off.
Twelve hours of sleep and a hectic morning, she makes it to the precinct with only minutes to spare. She places her cup on her desk and puts her purse in the drawer. “Whew, that was a close call.”
“You cut it closer every day,” Daniel says. Daniel Anderson has been Rachel’s partner for nearly a year. They work well together and have a seventy percent conviction rate.
“Well, if my partner wasn’t such a dick, he’d stop and get my coffee in the morning, so maybe I wouldn’t cut it so closely,” she says as she jokes with her partner, giving him a sideways grin.
“Whoa, hold your horses. I’m not your dog. I don’t fetch your slippers.”
“I didn’t ask you to fetch my slippers, dick. I asked you to fetch my coffee.”
Daniel glares at Rachel with pursed lips. The ringing of the phone halts the conversation any further. “Detective Anderson,” Daniel speaks into the receiver. “Yeah?” There’s a pause. He makes eye contact with Rachel and twirls his finger, indicating to her that she needs to grab her things. “We’ll be there in twenty.” He places the receiver on the cradle. “Come on, Rach. We landed us another case.”
She holsters her department issued firearm on her right hip before grabbing her coffee. “What’s up?” she casually asks while following Daniel to the Crown Victoria out in the lot.
“A twenty-three-year-old expectant mother named Stephany Larson is missing,” he answers as he climbs in the driver’s seat. “Apparently, she went to a local mall to do some baby shopping but never made it home.”
Rachel and Daniel aren’t missing persons detectives, but they do handle sensitive or high profile cases. The precinct labels missing children and missing women who are expecting as high profile, so homicide detectives, at least at this department, are in charge of these cases from beginning to end.
“Damn,” Rachel sighs. “I hate when pregnant women go missing. With all the crazies out there, cases like this have a high potential of ending very, very badly.”
“I know, Rach. We also need to focus on the husband too. Remember the Swanson Case?” The Swanson case happened nearly a year ago. Nancy Swanson had gone missing and her husband was all torn up. It was only later that they discovered it was all a show and he had actually butchered his wife and burned her body in their fire pit out back.
Rachel shivers at the memory. “Who could forget the Swanson case?” It was gruesome. By the time they’d got out to the Swanson house, the victim had been burned beyond recognition. The smell was something hideous. What saved evidence for them was the fact that the idiot didn’t know gasoline burns hot and fast. The gas burned off, leaving the charred remains and tissue for analysis.
She pulls herself from the thought of the Swanson case as Daniel pulls into a long dirt driveway with many potholes. At the end of the drive is a gorgeous two-story log cabin, like most of the homes in this area. The front has gorgeous petunias and roses adorning the beds and lush green grass covering the yard.
“Now remember, everyone is a person of interest. You’re bad cop and I’m good cop,” Daniel reminds her before exiting the car.
Why in the hell does he feel the need to tell me my role every time we land a new case? Just because I have tits instead of balls doesn’t mean I’m lacking brain cells. She climbs out of the car and meets up with Daniel just before he knocks on the front door.
A tall man with a blond beard opens the door just moments after Daniel knocks. Rachel notices that he looks disheveled. His hair is mussed as if he ran his hands through it a dozen times before they arrived.
“I’m Detective Daniel Anderson and this is my partner, Detective Rachel Carrington.” Daniel motions toward Rachel.
“Yes, please come in.” The man steps aside, opening the door further. “I’m Kevin Larson, Stephany’s husband.”
Kevin begins to walk toward the dining table. Rachel follows Daniel as she takes in the surroundings. The house is neat and tidy. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. The living room is free of dust and clutter and is decorated with a loving touch. Couple photos line the mantel and family photos litter the wall.
“I’m sorry that we are meeting under these circumstances,” Daniel says as he places his voice recorder on the table. “My partner and I will do our best to find your wife. We can only imagine what you’re feeling.”
“Thank you. I just know something isn’t right. Stephany never stays out all night.” Kevin runs his hands along his face, clearly upset about where his wife could be.
Rachel doesn’t want to play bad cop. She doesn’t feel that Kevin has anything to do with his wife’s disappearance. He’s too upset and too distraught to have anything to do with it. He’s nothing like David Swanson—the wife murdering sonofabitch.
Daniel begins the questioning. “Can you tell us the last time you saw your wife?”
“Um, yesterday morning before I left for work. I just switched to the morning shift at the lumberyard and it was her first of four days off from work—she’s a psychiatric nurse at Pine Crest General. She was so happy. She said she was going to go into Reno and check out some of the thrift stores for the…” He trails off before taking a deep breath. “For the baby. She’s just entered her second trimester and wants to start buying neutral items for the baby.”
“And you’re just now reporting her missing?” Rachel begins her bad cop routine. People expect a female detective to be the good cop, but not in this case.
Generally, police don’t investigate missing persons cases for seventy-two hours, but most of the time, the family reports them missing immediately. “Well, I called to report her missing last night. The dispatcher told me that I had to wait until she had been missing for seventy-two hours.”
Daniel nods his head. “Now, you told dispatch that you found her car in the parking lot of the mall?”
“Yeah. I knew she was going to stop at the mall here before heading to the larger strip mall in Reno. I decided that I could at least check out the mall while I was waiting for the hours to pass.” Kevin wipes a tear from his cheek before continuing. “I drove to the mall and cruised each parking row until I found her car.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Larson, I know this can’t be easy for you, but you need to bear with us for a little while longer. We need to ask a few more questions,” Daniel continues.
“I—I’m sorry. It’s just that, well, I know this isn’t good. I know that something’s happened to her and I wasn’t there.”
Continuing to stay in her role, Rachel rolls her eyes at the husband, but inside, her heart is aching for him. This is the part of the job that she absolutely loathes. She lets out a deep breath before Daniel continues the interview.
“Do you know of anyone that may harbor any hard feelings toward Stephany?”
Kevin shakes his head. “No. No, everyone loves Stephany. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.”
Rachel rolls her eyes for real this time. Everyone says that about their loved ones. How can one honestly say something negative about someone who is missing or deceased? And, on top of that, not one person she’s ever met was perfect. There is always someone out there that doesn’t like them. She may not have a mean bone in her body, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have any enemies.
“Mr. Larson, are you sure that’s correct? It’s in my professional opinion that everyone has a mean bone in their body—some more than others,” Rachel pipes in. She has more than most herself. She isn’t proud of the meanness that she possesses, but she knows that everyone has a mean bone, and Stephany Larson isn’t the exception to that rule.
“No, I’m serious, no one has an issue with her that I’m aware of. She really is a great woman.” His eyes slant as he defends his wife’s integrity.
“She’s a psych nurse, right?” Rachel continues with her questioning.
“Yes, at Pine Crest General.”
“She could’ve created an enemy at her job. She works with mentally unstable people.” Rachel loves being right under most circumstances, but this is not one of those circumstances. Every patient at Pine Crest General that Stephany has come into contact with is a potential suspect, especially those who have already been released.
Kevin shrugs his shoulders. “Yes, she does, but we’ve never had any issues. I know that she could’ve rubbed people the wrong way there, but she didn’t. She’s a well-liked nurse and one that the patients respond to well.”
“Okay, Mr. Larson, I think we have all the information we need. We’ve sent technicians to pick up your wife’s car. It’s being towed to our crime scene division for processing. If you can think of anything else that might be of pertinent importance, don’t hesitate to call.” Daniel slides his business card across the table.
Rachel and Daniel show themselves out and head back to the office. “I don’t think he had anything to do with her disappearance,” Rachel says as they pull into the precinct parking lot.
“Yeah, I agree with you. I think the poor guy has nothing to do with it. We need to make this our top priority when we get inside.”
Rachel heads to the crime scene unit while Daniel heads back to his desk to update Stephany’s file. Of all the things that police work entails, paperwork is not Rachel’s cup of tea. She’d prefer going and having a root canal rather than pushing all the paperwork.
Rachel throws open the double doors that lead into the shop at the ground level of the precinct. The shop resembles that of a mechanic’s garage with automobiles up on lifts and men and women running around in grease-absorbed coveralls. She steps over tools and grease rags as she makes her way toward the back of the building.
“Kyle,” she shouts to the young technician over the noise of power tools. “You got anything for me?”
Kyle Woodruff is at the tail end of his twenties. His baby blue eyes stand out against his well-kept, sandy blond hair. More than once, Rachel has thought that his second home is at the gym. His muscles pull and strain under his already too-tight shirt.
“Hey, Detective. I just finished my examination of the Larson vehicle.” He runs his hand through his hair as he shoves a grease rag in the back pocket of his coveralls. “Unfortunately, nothing turned up except for this.” He hands Rachel a piece of torn paper with a name and an address scrawled across it.
145 Mission Blvd
9:00 a.m. Monday
Rachel reads the note several times, her lips curled up and brows slanted in confusion. Who is Wendy? Where does this address lead to? Could Wendy be the last person to have seen Stephany alive? So many questions race through Rachel’s head.
“Thank you, Kyle.” Rachel turns and rushes back through the shop to the double doors. She isn’t sure what this means, but she knows she needs to research the name and location. It may not be much, but it’s more than they had.
Her low heels click against the floor rapidly as she power-walks to her desk. Instead of taking the elevator, she rushes up the stairs two at a time. She throws open the door to the detectives’ room, nearly hitting Detective John Carlton in the face. “Sorry,” she yells out as she continues to her desk. John mutters something, but nothing that Rachel can make out. He is the second oldest detective on the force.
“Daniel, I think we may have something here,” she calls over her shoulder as she enters her credentials into her computer. “Wendy, 9 a.m. Monday, 145 Mission Boulevard.”
“Huh? What? Who’s Wendy?” Daniel rises from his chair, making his way to her desk.
“I don’t know who Wendy is. Kyle found a piece of paper with the name, time and location scribbled on it. We need to figure out who this Wendy chick is and if Stephany met her at the address below or not. If she did meet up with her, then we know that Wendy saw Stephany last, not her husband.”
Rachel inputs the address into a search engine and waits for the results. Mission Boulevard is not in the town of Pine Crest, California, but it could easily be a street in Reno or Carson City, Nevada. After a few seconds, the results show up on the screen.
“There’s a Mission Boulevard in Pine Valley,” she tells Daniel as she begins to google the building number with the street name. Pine Valley is within state limits, therefore keeping this case hers and Daniel’s as opposed to including the FBI.
“So apparently, 145 Mission Boulevard, Pine Valley, California, is a thrift store called Gentle Hand Me Downs selling newborn, infant and toddler clothing and necessities.” She clicks a few buttons on her mouse and the printer on the other side of the room fires to life. “Let’s go check it out.” She looks at Daniel before heading over to the printer. “I’ve got the directions here.” She waves the paper in the air.
“Why do you still insist on printing out directions? You do know that we have a state of the art navigation unit in the car, right?”
“You know I don’t trust those damned things. They’ll send you straight into hell if you aren’t on your toes.”
Daniel shakes his head at her logic before grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair and following her out the door. He’s never met someone that trusts technology less than Rachel Carrington.
* * *
The drive to Pine Valley seems to drag on for hours when, in fact, it is only twenty minutes. The scenery, though beautiful, seems to flow together, but the endless trees make Rachel’s stomach churn. A sensitive stomach is her downfall. Over the years, she’s tried to hide it from her colleagues. Daniel is the only person she can’t fool.
“There’s some motion sickness pills in the glove box. I don’t know why you think you have to tough that shit out. A lot of people have motion sickness.”
Rachel opens the glove box and takes two pills from the bottle. She pops them in her mouth and swallows them dry. “Because I’m not a lot of people,” she responds as she closes the box and lies back with her head again the headrest.
“I don’t know why you think that you aren’t allowed to have faults or weaknesses. No one’s perfect, Rach. Except for me.” He gives her a smug smile. She knows that he truly believes he’s perfection.
Rachel would never confide in anyone, not even her partner, about why she strives for perfection. Growing up with a strict detective as a father didn’t allow for faults or weaknesses—they just weren’t allowed.
“I’m just a perfectionist. It’s a personality issue,” she lies before reaching forward and turning the radio up, ignoring his snide comment about being perfect. “Imagine Dragons” is blaring through the speakers. She rests her head back and closes her eyes for the remainder of the trip.
* * *
“We’re here,” Daniel’s voice rings out as he shuts the engine off. Rachel jerks her eyes open and takes in her surroundings. Gentle Hand Me Downs is an older building pushed back against the woods. Rachel opens the door and steps out onto the gravel parking lot.
Rachel pushes her sunglasses to the top of her head, pulling her fiery red hair out of her face. Daniel opens the door for her, placing his sunglasses on the front of his shirt before following her in.
“How can I help you?” An older woman with greying hair meets them halfway in the establishment. She’s not quite as old as Rachel’s mom, but she’s no spring chicken. She can’t be more than five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds overweight.
“I’m Detective Carrington and this is my partner, Detective Anderson. We need to ask you a few questions.”
The lady stares at Daniel with her mouth slightly ajar. Rachel is used to women of all ages ogling her partner. Of mixed race, half black and half white, Daniel has mocha colored skin with gorgeous emerald eyes. His hours at the gym haven’t gone unnoticed, with bulging biceps and rock hard abs. No matter where they go, any woman within ocular distance of Daniel becomes all googly eyed.
“Uh, sure, what’s this about?”
Learning the woman’s name from the name tag on her shirt, Rachel continues. “Martha, we just have a few questions in regards to a young woman who’s gone missing. We have knowledge that she may have been here yesterday. Do you have an employee or customer by the name of Wendy?”
Martha bites her bottom lip in thought. “I’m the only one here. I don’t have any employees and the name doesn’t ring any bells, but I did have a new customer here yesterday.”
“Would you recognize her if you saw her again?” Rachel asks as she pulls out a picture of Stephany Larson.
“Yeah, that’s her. She came here and walked around the store for about twenty minutes before receiving a call and leaving immediately after.”
“Thank you. If you remember anything else, don’t hesitate to call,” Rachel says as she hands the woman a business card.
“Well, come to think of it, there was an old pick-up truck that pulled in and then left just seconds after your missing person.”
“Can you remember anything about the truck or the driver?” Rachel asks.
“No, sorry,” she states.
“Thank you for your help.”
Daniel winks at Martha before they head out of the secondhand store. “Well, that was a dead end,” Rachel remarks as they climb into the car. Most leads usually don’t pan out, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Well, we know she came here first. When we get back to the precinct, I’ll call her wireless provider and see if we can get information on her location and call history for Sunday evening through Monday afternoon.”
Rachel nods her head as the engine rumbles to life. She’ll need to head over to Larson house to inquire about anyone he or his wife may know by the name of Wendy. She cranks the radio up and lies her head back for the trip back to Pine Crest.
Rachel and Daniel arrive back at the precinct just after five in the evening. The office, usually bustling with activity, is desolate. Stephany Larson’s case is the only active case in Pine Crest, allowing the other four detectives—Steven Willington, Thomas O’Riley, John Carlton and Fred Beryl, a decent time off work.
“You wanna order a pizza?” Daniel asks as they make their way to their desks. Daniel’s desk is clutter-free and organized, whereas Rachel’s is the polar opposite. Files line her desk while miscellaneous papers liter every square inch.
“Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and order pizza, and then call Stephany’s cell provider to find out what you can. I’m going to head over to Kevin Larson’s house to interview him about this Wendy character.”
“I don’t think you should interview the husband just yet. We should call the cell phone provider first to see what we can come up with before interviewing him again.” Daniel fumbles through his cell phone looking for the number to their favorite pizza parlor: Fat Johnny’s Pizzeria.
Not wanting to argue with Daniel, Rachel places her belongings in her desk drawer and sits and stares at the mountain of papers before her. No matter what the case—big or small—the paperwork is endless. She locates a legal pad and places it on a small section of desk not besieged with paperwork. She’s immersed in her notes when District Attorney Joseph Sutherland approaches and clears his throat.
“Detective Carrington.” He makes his formal introduction.
“District Attorney Sutherland, how can I help you?” Rachel slaps on a faux smile.
Joseph Sutherland is about ten years her senior and gorgeous. His jet black hair, the color of the night sky, makes his baby blue eyes pop right off his face. He’s like today’s version of Adonis.
“We have some holes in the Swanson case. You remember, the guy that murdered his wife before cutting her up in tiny pieces with a hack saw and then attempting to burn the pieces in his burn pile.” Sutherland says, treating Rachel as if she’s incompetent.
Since he was elected as Pine Crest County’s DA last November, he’s been a real tool to work with. All of her hard work is scrutinized far more than any of the other detectives’.
“Yeah? I remember making sure that there were no holes in that case so you didn’t have to do any extra work.” Contempt rolls off of Rachel’s tongue. She’s becoming tired of Sutherland’s nonverbal accusations that she’s a piss-poor detective.
“Well, he’s claiming his rights weren’t read to him and you failed to hit record on the camera before reading him his rights. So now all we have is your word against his. We have his confession recorded, but we don’t have you reading him his rights.”
Rachel begins to see red. She’s a damn good detective and if she had a dick between her legs, this conversation wouldn’t be happening. Sutherland would have found a way to prove the suspect knew his rights. “You know what?” she starts as she rises from her chair, hands palm down on the desk. “Why don’t you get off your ass and do your damn job. Find a way to continue the trial without that footage. And furthermore,” she continues as she throws her purse over her shoulder after grabbing her things from her desk drawer, “do we really need to tell people their rights? They watch enough crime shows to know their Miranda Rights without being told,” she huffs as she turns and stomps toward the exit doors. She needs to get the hell away from that prick before she discharges her firearm at him. Could she get away with shooting him by pleading temporary insanity? Surely she could.
* * *
The chill of the night hits her face when she exits the precinct. The turn of summer to fall causes her to pull her jacket tighter against her body. Her mind races with a thousand thoughts. Is she truly strong enough to handle what the job throws at her? Was her father right when he told her she didn’t have thick enough skin or a strong enough stomach to handle the life of a detective? Was her mother speaking the truth when she told her that the job would take away the opportunity to have a family and that one day, though she may’ve disagreed at the time, she would want a family?
Rachel has felt something slowly die within her soul since becoming a detective. The sights that she’s been forced to see and the stories she’s been forced to hear have ruined her faith in humanity. When you’re surrounded by nothing but horror and negativity, how can you keep a flame on happiness and positivity?
Before she’s aware of it, she’s standing outside the doors of Piccolo Joe’s, Pine Crest’s only bar, and the only place to drown her demons. Without a second thought, she pushes the double, swinging doors open and walks up to the bar. Taking a seat, she orders a whiskey and a Bud Light from the bartender and owner, Joe Sackton.
“Having a rough night?” he asks as he places her order before her. Joe Sackton is a short man, nowhere near six feet tall, and is slightly pudgy. Pushing into his fifties, his black hair is sprinkled with silver streaks.
“When do I not have a rough night?” She tries to joke before downing her whiskey and chasing it with a pull of her beer.
“Wanna talk about it?” He wipes the bar off with a white towel. Though he rarely works the bar, he is a true bartender through and through.
“Naw, I just want to drink my troubles away,” she says, shooing him off as politely as she can. Most of the time, she doesn’t care if she’s polite or not, but she likes Joe and doesn’t want to offend him.
Wrapping her hands around the neck of the cold bottle, her mind drifts to the Swanson case. She and Daniel worked countless hours looking for Nancy Swanson. Her husband reported her missing just days after Halloween. She had discovered she was pregnant just days before and he was worried sick about her.
After days of combing the woods surrounding Pine Crest, all their options had been eliminated. There were no signs of Nancy anywhere. It was when she and Daniel went to deliver the news that the search had been called off that they discovered the truth of Nancy’s whereabouts.
The ground was littered with the first snowfall of the year and the chill in the air went straight to one’s bones. Rachel stayed two steps behind Daniel. Her heart sunk with every step toward the Swanson home. To tell a husband that the search for his wife has been called off and there are no leads as to her whereabouts is something that she will never get used to.
When David answered the door, they could clearly tell he was inebriated. The smell that permeated from him was horrid. It smelled as if he’d bathed in a bathtub full of scotch and hadn’t showered in a week. His hair was messy and it looked as if he’d slept in the same clothes for more than a couple of nights.
“Mr. Swanson, we’re sorry to disturb you at this hour,” Daniel started. “May we come in?”
“Sure,” he slurred as he teetered backwards. “Come on in.”
As Daniel explained that they were ceasing all search efforts for his wife, Rachel walked around the house. As she walked toward the patio door, she noticed a few drops of blood on the deck leading to a fire pit. With her partner keeping Mr. Swanson occupied, Rachel opened the sliding door and walked out onto the deck.
Wind whipped around her, but she pushed through and walked toward the reddish orange flames bellowing from the pit. The smell—burning flesh—hit her nose before her eyes saw the carnage. Body parts—fingers, toes, pieces of legs and arms—stared at her from within the flames of the fire pit.
“Daniel!” she yelled, unable to turn away from the bloodbath before her. “Get that sonofabitch in a pair of cuffs and get your ass out here!”
Rachel raced off the deck trying to find something to put the flames out with. Grabbing a handful of dirt, she raced back up and doused the flames. Her primary goal at that moment was salvaging what was left of the corpse in the pit.
Were David Swanson’s rights read to him? Had Daniel read him his rights when he cuffed him? Rachel knew beyond a doubt that she definitely hadn’t read the bastard his rights, but she was also not the arresting officer. Daniel Anderson was the arresting officer. But she should’ve read him his rights to cover her own ass. Would her actions that night cost the district attorney his case? Could this wife murdering sonofabitch literally get away with murder?