Examining the dead will help her solve present crimes and uncover past secrets in this page-turner thriller for fans of Patricia Cornwell and Rizzoli and Isles.
With her vindictive ex-husband out of prison, San Francisco medical examiner Annabelle Schwartzman is trying harder than ever to move on with her life—by focusing on her job to speak for the victims who can't. Summoned to a homicide in Golden Gate Park, she realizes that she'd seen the victim just hours before, alive and well in a parked Jeep with a small boy. Now, the woman has been stabbed to death and stripped of her burka, and the child is nowhere to be found.
When an African American student is found dead, bearing knife wounds identical to those of the woman in the park, the press jumps on them as hate crimes. If only they were so easy to explain. There is a connection—but Schwartzman believes it's something even worse. Her fears are confirmed with the discovery of the next victim.
Now, to stop a vicious killer whose work has only just begun, Schwartzman and Detective Hal Harris must untangle the twisted thread that links it all to the missing boy and a crime buried in the past.
Release date: July 24, 2018
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 378
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Schwartzman wound her way along the empty, deserted roads of Golden Gate Park toward the pin dropped on her phone screen. The wet pavement slurred beneath the car, her headlights illuminating curls of fog as they slipped between trees and rolled across the green hills like long, gauzy ribbons. The pin marked the location of the corpse that awaited her. As she drove, the rain let up. For the first time in days, a crescent of night sky appeared where the clouds broke apart.
Buster rode in the passenger seat beside her, his tongue hanging down across pink gums. Named for the local Giants’ player, Buster had graced the car with a permanent smear from his nose on the windshield and the perpetual scent of wet dog. She’d given up trying to clean the glass. Even the silly harness she’d bought to attach to the seat belt didn’t prevent him from getting right up to the window like a nearsighted old lady behind the wheel.
Grateful to get off the busy streets, she drove deeper into the park. San Francisco had been in a drought for so many years that drivers had forgotten how to drive in the rain. Making her way to and from work and scenes over the past three weeks had been an exercise in patience. This was her second fall in San Francisco, and last winter had been no different.
She didn’t mind the rain herself. It was a gentle reminder of how far she’d come. She’d been in her house a full year. She and Buster.
Buster barked into the dark night, and a little chill ran down her arms. Normally, she wouldn’t come to this park at night. The naive might call it safe, but any place that offered endless shadows and few witnesses was not safe. Not for a woman. Not for anyone.
Her call tonight was related to a motorcyclist who had driven into a pond and never surfaced. The police had received reports from three different people, each one describing a man on a Harley driving out of control through the park. The last witness had seen him drive into the water. The paramedics were already on the scene to retrieve the body and the bike. As the biker was presumed dead, she had been called in as well.
It would be her job to determine the factors at play in his death—drugs or alcohol or some sort of cardiac arrest or embolism. In a witnessed incident like this one, her presence wasn’t necessary at the scene, but she’d been walking Buster when the call had come in and, as eerie as it was, the park had a draw for her. The canopy of trees—tall pines—and a glimpse of the California Academy of Sciences made her feel as though she were in some magical place.
Buster barked again as she came around a corner, drawing her attention to an older-model Jeep Cherokee parked at a stop sign. She eased on the brake and glanced over. Shadows obscured the driver, but a young boy sat sideways in the passenger seat. Schwartzman guessed his age at seven or eight. A wide grin covered his face, his hands waving as he talked animatedly. Buster barked again, and the boy noticed the dog. He pointed, and when the driver turned, Schwartzman realized that the driver wasn’t in shadow after all. The woman wore a burqa.
The boy waved excitedly to Buster, and Schwartzman waved back. The woman, too, raised her hand, and Schwartzman saw the smile in her eyes, though her mouth was covered. As Schwartzman pulled through the stop sign, she observed that the boy wore a white top that crossed over in front, like a uniform for karate and taekwondo.
She rubbed Buster’s head as she drove on. As an only child, she had no nieces or nephews. And until this last year, she had always lived in a building that catered to people without children. Now she enjoyed having kids in her neighborhood. They adored Buster, and watching them rub his back or wrap their arms around his neck was a joy to see. When she’d first moved in, their small, happy faces served as a fresh reminder of what she’d lost almost eight years ago, when Spencer had thrown her across their bedroom and her pregnancy had ended. But now the children were refreshing, a reminder of life’s simple joys.
Through the dense greenery, the red-and-blue lights of a patrol car came into view. Around the bend sat a fire truck, an ambulance, and a second patrol car, its lights off. She parked behind the second patrol car and rolled the window down a few inches for Buster.
A tow truck had arrived and slowly backed up to the edge of the pond, emitting the familiar warning beep as it reversed. The rain started again as she left the car. She layered a thin raincoat over her down jacket and brought the hood over her head. Leaving her kit in the trunk, she walked across the wet grass toward the pond.
The truck’s wheels hit a patch of mud and started to spin. The driver climbed down from the truck to look, and two patrol officers approached, the three making animated hand gestures. Sensing it would be a while, Schwartzman went back to her car for her umbrella.
The crime scene van arrived next. Naomi Muir emerged, one of the crime scene techs Schwartzman worked with often, along with a second tech, Chase Hammar, whom she’d worked with less often. The two were bantering in the rain when Schwartzman returned with her umbrella.
From beside the crime scene van, the three watched the scene.
“They’re going to need a tow truck for the tow truck,” Chase said. “Guess I’d better suit up.”
Schwartzman watched him walk away. “Suit up?”
“That pond is almost thirty feet deep,” Naomi explained. “He’s going to put on a dry suit to go in for the body. He’ll take a net down, then we’ll use chains to haul out the bike.”
The body was almost certainly at the bottom of the pond. A body sank as soon as water replaced the air in the lungs—either by a victim inhaling it in the process of drowning or by the air naturally making its way out of the lungs via the trachea. Cadavers then tended to remain underwater until bacteria in the stomach and chest cavity produced sufficient gases—methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide—to create a sort of human balloon. At that point, bodies floated to the surface. This process took days or sometimes weeks, depending on a variety of factors, including temperature and water salinity. Hot temperatures meant the bacteria got to work faster. Salinity caused the opposite to happen—the more salt in the water, the longer it took the bacteria to get a foothold.
The rain paused as Naomi set up a series of mammoth spotlights with the help of the patrol officers. They angled all five lights toward the pond, giving the appearance of midday to the water and illuminating its green tint. At the same time, the brilliant floodlights turned the dark beyond their reach into utter blackness.
Chase waded into the water. Moments later, the heavy black rubber of his hood vanished beneath the surface.
Once Chase located the motorcycle and the driver in the pond, the fire department would assist in the process of retrieval. To pass the time, Schwartzman walked the perimeter of the lights until she found the single track of the motorcycle’s tires. The grass was torn and muddy in its path. She didn’t know what she expected. This was Roger’s area of expertise, not hers.
He would be able to tell her the cycle’s speed, whether the driver tried to brake, whether he’d lost control. She lost herself in thought, watching the quiet surface of the water for Chase to reappear.
Schwartzman jumped at the voice. Her eyes adjusted to find Ken Macy at his patrol car, parked just beyond the light.
“Hi, Ken.” Her heart beat a steady hammer in her chest. “I didn’t see you.”
“I’m hiding in the dark,” Ken said without looking at her, his gaze aimed at the scene.
She tried to laugh, but it was forced, more like a choke. The two stood in silence, watching the activity below. Chase surfaced in the water, giving the group a thumbs-up. Meanwhile, two firefighters had attached chains from their truck to the tow to provide some additional power.
Naomi directed the fire truck to give them the best angle, and Schwartzman wished she had an excuse to join her. Too bad people who broke up couldn’t talk to each other. She and Ken had always had such a good rapport before they’d tried to be more than friends.
A high-pitched whine filled the air as the tow truck’s tires spun in the mud. The fire truck beeped steadily as it backed up. The tow truck lurched, swerved slightly, and then pulled forward.
The group cheered as the big truck cleared the banks. Behind it, a heavy chain slowly emerged from the water. The wheel of a motorcycle followed, then the front handlebars, covered in long strands of green pond grass that shone in the spotlights as though the chlorophyll were illuminated from inside. She was starting to wonder where the body was when a pant leg appeared. The victim was still attached to the bike.
She glanced toward the scene. “I’d better—”
Ken nodded. “Take care.”
“You, too, Ken.”
Schwartzman made her way to the edge of the water to watch the victim emerge. Above the jeans, he wore a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. His helmeted head surfaced last. The presence of the helmet, and specifically that the face shield remained down over his eyes, made her suspect he was dead when he went in the water. An initial gut reaction, and one she would never utter aloud. Human instinct was to clear the area around the face when struggling to breathe. In this case, that would have meant removing the helmet, or at least pushing open the face shield.
One of the paramedics waded into the water to check for a pulse, and Naomi joined him, getting wet up to her waist to take pictures. The paramedic stepped away. Naomi spent a few minutes documenting the body before the firefighters loaded the corpse onto a gurney. The two men carried the body to the back of the ambulance and released the metal base so the gurney stood at bed height.
Since Schwartzman had no plans to do more than take a cursory look, she remained in her street clothes, stretching on a pair of gloves as the paramedics cut the thin T-shirt from the victim’s body. The wounds on his hands, arms, and neck—mostly abrasions, contact burns and scrapes—could have occurred whether he’d drowned or died of natural causes. They were likely pre- and perimortem, although it was always difficult to say what injuries occurred in the process of retrieving a body from the water. Once she had him in the morgue, she would use alternative light sources to attempt to age the injuries.
The rain started up again as Schwartzman worked the helmet free and examined his pupils for dilation, a sign of drug use. They appeared normal. She checked his arms and between his fingers for tracks and then also his neck, since it was in view. She occasionally found track marks on the necks of victims, though it was arguably the riskiest injection site for drug users. Abscesses and collapsed veins occurred with IV drug use, and an abscess in the veins of the neck might result in nerve damage that blocked air passage. Not to mention the direct track to the brain might result in stroke or neurological damage. But those dangers didn’t always stay in the forefront of an addict’s mind.
In this case, the neck was clean. He didn’t smell of alcohol, although the stink of swamp water might have masked the scent. Nothing in the preliminary examination suggested abuse of alcohol or drugs. But that was all it was. A suggestion. There was no way to be certain until she had him in the morgue.
Schwartzman directed the paramedics to transport the body. She signed the paperwork and hurried to her car as the rain began to fall in sheets.
The storm made her all but blind on the dark roads. Rounding the bend, she slowed to a crawl when her headlights caught a glint on the side of the road. At first, it looked like a reflector on a bike. Who on earth would be out riding in this weather?
But as she got closer, she saw it was a parked car.
The same older-model maroon Jeep that she’d passed earlier. Pulled forward on the road maybe twenty or thirty feet, the car looked empty.
She stopped and peered into the darkened windows. No sign of the woman in the burqa or the boy. Schwartzman scanned the darkened hillside, the patches of bushes in the distance. Where would they have gone?
Had they been having car trouble?
She considered getting out of the car, but what would she do? Look for them? She lifted her phone. Four bars of coverage. If they had been in trouble, they would have called someone.
Surely, they weren’t out here in this weather.
The air in the car grew warm, and Schwartzman felt her own drenched legs—her pants soaked through from the rain that had pelted her below the hem of her coat as she’d examined the body. Water had dripped down into her boots, and her wool socks were damp. Water puddled between her toes.
The boy and his mother had certainly gone home as well—ten p.m. on a Tuesday night. Past a child’s bedtime.
Past her own bedtime, for that matter.
Buster barked once as though urging her on, and Schwartzman wound her way out of the park and headed home.
Bitty checked the rearview mirror, studying the lights of the car behind her. Was it the same car? She made a turn at the next light, slowed down. Kept driving. She continued along the street, thinking, trying to plan.
Every time she blinked, Aleena’s body flashed in her vision. Her beautiful skin, the blood smeared across her. So much blood. She still looked gorgeous. That was what she’d been thinking, looking at her dead roommate. She was still the prettier one, the better one.
Aleena with her exotic ruby earrings and ornate gold bangle bracelet, the clasp like two entwined snakes. She usually wore beautiful patterned silks, paired with expensive shoes and handbags, all a complement to her exquisite face, her thick glossy hair, and rich, brown skin.
They were as different as night and day, only Aleena had all the good of both, and Bitty was full of the parts no one would remember. She was like the dull, wasted hours between three a.m. and five a.m., when it was too late to sleep and too early to wake.
Her parents had given her the name Tabitha, but she’d been Bitty from birth.
And she was invisible. She had been her whole life.
Ironically, the one night she would have benefited from being invisible, she hadn’t been. That one time. Being invisible had always made her ashamed, angry. Her whole life, she had wanted to make people see her. Make them feel her power.
She hadn’t realized the power of invisible.
They were going to work together. Fight together. That had been their agreement fourteen years ago, too, when Aleena had begged her to come back to California so that they could report their assault to the police. They had kept the attack secret for years, too terrified to speak up. For so long, they thought if they didn’t talk about it, maybe the memories would vanish, and the scars would evaporate. But it didn’t work like that. Aleena hadn’t been sleeping, couldn’t eat. She still lived too close to where it had happened. She dreamed of him nightly. He might be anywhere, she’d said. He might come after her. Unlike Bitty, who was tucked safely in Oklahoma, Aleena couldn’t escape.
Aleena had begged Bitty to return to Berkeley, to go to the police with her. Or they’d never get over it, Aleena had said. She would never get over it. So Bitty had agreed. She’d scraped together every last dime—from babysitting and collecting cans—and she’d returned to Berkeley all those years ago.
This time, it was Bitty who’d insisted. Fought to make Aleena see that that they had to get their justice.
She should have let it go. Stayed away. And now what?
Now she was driving Aleena’s Jeep, with Aleena’s child.
She had to come up with a plan on her own.
Her brain might have been her best asset. She was definitely smart, but book smart. She lacked the kind of common sense that girls in Perry, Oklahoma, were supposed to be born with. In her town, common sense and a set of child-rearing hips made for a perfect bride.
She had neither.
But now . . . She glanced in the rearview mirror. The roads were dark and slick. The windshield wipers stuttered across the glass. Above, the large warehouse buildings looked abandoned. The streetlamps trembled in the strange light like ghosts.
What did she do? How did she do this alone? She took another turn. She’d lost track of where she was. Was he behind her? Had he been following her at all?
How had it all gone wrong? She had forced that terror down in that dark, cold place, pulled herself together, and handled the situation. She was grateful that she had help from the candies. Grateful that she’d brought them. Wished she had more. She wouldn’t think about how she might sleep tonight. Only with the help from the candies did she sleep at all. Black, dreamless sleep. The sleep of the dead.
She pictured her bed at home. Tucker sleeping soundly, silently, as unobtrusive in sleep as he was awake. Tears burned her eyes. How she missed Tucker. How she wished she were home in her bed now.
Would she see him again?
She’d never considered the possibility that she wouldn’t go home. She’d known it might take longer than she’d planned. It would certainly take longer than the few days she’d promised. But without a partner . . .
She had no choice.
There was no going home until it was done.
If not before, then certainly now.
She was in too deep. And she owed it to herself—to both of them. Aleena. A sob caught in her throat, and another turn brought her onto a quiet street. Alone.
Pressing her head onto the steering wheel, she forced herself to breathe. She needed to find somewhere to stay the night.
There was no returning to the little room she’d rented. Not after what had happened tonight. She touched the form on the seat beside her. Not with him.
Then she saw it—the theater door. It was almost two a.m. The car and the boy’s light snore rattled beneath and beside her. She needed a place for the night.
She imagined the movie theater. A warm spot to hide. Big chairs. Empty at night, secure. She would be safe there.
Like magic, the side door opened, and a man stepped out.
For a moment, he was Bengal. She shuddered and searched the area around the car. How could he be here? She reached down to take hold of the weapon on the floor.
It couldn’t be him. He was . . . Oh, God. He could be anywhere.
The man at the theater took a step forward, and the streetlamp bathed his face in light. It was not Bengal.
Of course it wasn’t.
His eyes narrowed, and she shook off a chill. She had to get inside that theater.
The man propped open the door and lit a cigarette. Leaning up against the side of the building, he blew out huge billows of almost translucent smoke.
She set the weapon down again and made a U-turn. Shut the car off and saw the cloth on the floor of the passenger’s side. Lifted it as an idea came to her. The metal fell with a clank, and the child stirred on the seat beside her.
“Ssh,” she whispered, to both of them.
She hesitated in the silence, formulated a plan. She took out the last two gummies from the bag she’d bought in the Oklahoma City airport and held them tightly in her hand. If she could warm the plastic-like gelatin into a wad, she could shove it in the lock on the theater door to prevent the latch from engaging.
But she couldn’t let him see her face. She pulled the black fabric into her lap. The thick wetness slid across her fingers. She smelled iron, tasting the sensation of biting into her tongue. She closed her eyes and yanked the cloth over her head.
The Jeep’s door let out a low creak as she eased it open and hurried around to the curb. She adjusted the eyeholes to see. The man still leaned up against the side of the building. She smoothed the black cloth, no longer herself. She tried to capture Aleena’s strength. She could do this.
She started across the four lanes of quiet road. Out of nowhere, an engine revved, and a set of headlights bore down on her. She jumped out of the way, tripping on the niqab.
She struggled to get up, to reach the curb, before the car came at her again. Sounds of laughter erupted from the car. A blaring horn. “Go home, terrorist!” someone shouted, then more laughing.
From inside her roommate’s Jeep, a cry sounded.
The car screeched around the corner as the crying grew louder.
The man at the theater watched without moving to help. Bitty untangled the fabric from her legs and jogged the slow, awkward run of someone who never exercised. This she knew from being invisible. If you slid into people’s stereotypes, they saw only what they expected.
The man pushed off the side of the building and headed back to the door. The smoke smelled of sage and reminded her of the clove cigarettes she had smelled in Berkeley when she’d lived there.
“Excuse me,” she called, raising a hand. In the dull light, a dark trail was visible on her skin. “I left my phone in the theater.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I’m afraid we’re closed.”
“It’s just inside this theater. I left not two hours ago.”
“I cleaned the theater myself,” he said. “Didn’t find any phone.”
“If you’ll please let me look. Two minutes,” she pleaded, hiding her face in the fabric as she tried to inch closer to the door.
“I said we’re closed.” He moved from her, and she caught the scent of beer on his breath.
She glanced at the car across the street. She grabbed hold of his sleeve, edging closer again. “Please. I need the phone. I’ll only be a minute.”
“It’s not there,” he said. “I already cleaned the whole theater.”
She stumbled back, slipping again on the niqab and almost losing her balance. The crying rose in pitch. His face filled the window. “You don’t understand. There’s a little boy. And his mother is—” She couldn’t utter the words. Aleena was dead. Killed. There had been so much blood. “I need my phone.”
The man slipped inside the open door and knocked away the brick propping it open. “You’ve got to leave.”
She wrapped her fingers around the edge of the door and tried to shove her foot in the opening. He pushed from the inside, pinching her toes.
Her foot slid until the door was held open only by the tip of her shoe.
Desperate, she drew out the weapon, shoved the blade through the narrow gap to wedge the door open. The blade stopped, and she leaned in with all her weight until it punched through the slit.
From inside came a strange, guttural sound, then a crack. The pressure against the door softened, and something drew the blade from her hand. The door opened another inch. “Please,” she said.
She held her ground, waiting.
He said nothing.
She shoved. The door opened several inches and stopped. She let it fall back and drove hard against it. It hit something with a thwack and stuck. He’d put something up against it.
Both palms on the cool metal, she leaned in, driving her feet forward inch by inch. Her breath heaved. Sweat dripped between her breasts, and the door edged open.
She heaved again, putting her shoulder into it. Finally, she made enough space to slip inside.
She slid into the dark, and the door closed behind her. Moving into the blackness, she tripped. The fabric covered her eyes, blinding her further. She let out a cry. Thrashing, she jerked the garment off and threw it to the ground.
The room was too quiet. He was gone—to get security, to call the police.
Her pulse pounded. She listened. Heard nothing.
The exit sign gave off a red glow. But she needed more light. She needed to get the boy. She stepped back toward the door.
Her shoe slid, and she fell hard, landing in something slick. Her hands were wet. She expected something sticky—like soda—but it felt thicker, warm.
Squinting in the red light, she stared down at her palms. Stained dark.
A shape lay against the floor nearby, and she reached out. A leg. She jerked her hand back. Cried out. Got onto her knees and crawled forward. The dagger’s handle caught the scarlet light, and she followed it down the length of the dagger.
Until it disappeared.
Into the belly of the man.
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