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Cut To The Quick

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The crime scene was like something out of a horror movie. Tycoon and playboy Oliver Mercer has been brutally slain in his posh home in the Pasadena hills, joined in death by his long-legged trophy girlfriend—both of their bodies displayed in a chilling tableau. The only evidence left at this helter skelter massacre: a size-eleven high-heeled shoe print and a long strand of hair from a blonde wig.

The gory horror of the Mercer manse reawakens terrible memories for homicide detective and single mom Nan Vining, who survived her own harrowing knife attack a year earlier. While secretly tracking the taunting, murderous gameplayer her daughter Emily dubbed T.B. Mann—The Bad Man—she is now working the Mercer case alongside her ex-flame Jim Kissick, stirring up conflicted feelings for Nan.

From the ritzy estates of L.A.’s Lamborghini-driving set to a rocky desert outpost where rattlesnakes whisper murder, Nan will risk both her badge and her heart on a case that cuts close to the bone.

“Compelling… Readers will look forward to seeing more of this edgy, unpredictable heroine.”
— Publisher’s Weekly

“Cut to the Quick’s razor-sharp characters and twisted plot kept me on the edge of my chair from the first page to the last. Intense, smart, and relentless, Nan Vining is no run of the mill cop.”
— Mariah Stewart, New York Times Bestselling Author

Chapter 1

Nothing bad had ever happened to Oliver Mercer. He hadn’t followed Mercer long before he’d figured that out. Nothing really bad. Having your teeth kicked out bad. Watching someone slit your girlfriend’s throat in front of you bad. Watching someone slit your girlfriend’s throat while you’re gurgling through your own slit throat bad. Or losing all your money. A guy like Mercer probably thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to him. Or handing over his Rolex to a robber. Or finding his girlfriend in bed with his best friend. The fool.

Mercer had all the advantages. Born into money. While following Mercer around Pasadena, he’d heard people call it old money like that made it important and special. Dough was dough as far as he was concerned. No better cushion from life’s problems than a mountain of cash. Real trouble had just skimmed the surface of Mercer’s life, the misery lasting as long as a tiny baby’s frown. When the trouble’s over, those little tears and wrinkled brow melt away, leaving nothing behind. Takes decades of worry for those frown lines to dig in. That’s what Mercer was. A big, fat baby acting like he’s something special because he has money he didn’t earn. Having airs and looking down on people. He’d seen Mercer do it. He’d gotten that close to him. He’d worn his favorite disguise, but Mercer would have looked right through him anyway. He was one of the little people.

He smiled. Sometimes little people had big plans that could whip around and bite a guy like Mercer right in the ass.

He’d heard Mercer go on about a billboard company he’d bought into. Outside advertising he’d called it, like that dressed it up or something. Guess it made Mercer feel like he had a real job. A well-placed billboard, like the ones along the Sunset Strip, can earn fifty grand a month in rent. Billboards, for crying out loud. Who knew? Mercer’s partner had been having problems with the law for allegedly poisoning some expensive trees, city property, that were blocking his signs. Personally, he thought that was funnier than hell and had to hand it to the guy, if the story was true. Mercer had used unkind names when talking about his business partner. Well, you gotta know who you’re getting in bed with, so to speak.

One thing’s for double damn sure, Mercer wouldn’t have got his girlfriend if he was a working stiff. Babe like her wouldn’t have given him the time of day. That’s all anyone needs to know about life right there.

Bad things did happen to good and to so-so people too, for no apparent reason. Mercer hadn’t learned that life lesson yet. He was about to show Mercer a different view of the world.

Looking through binoculars from his vantage point across the Arroyo Seco, he caught himself holding his breath. He let out a small sigh when all the lights in Mercer’s glass-walled home turned on at once, as they did the same time each evening. The house, designed by the much discussed Spanish architect, Santiago Torres, was striking on the hillside anyway. The lights spectacularly set it off. He was sure that’s why Mercer turned them all on. That was okay. Then everyone could enjoy it a little bit. The worker bees commuting on the 210 freeway could look up at the big house shining on the hill and have their spirits raised. It was like looking at a far away castle. Sometimes just the suggestion that life can be different is enough to get you through another mean day. That was another astute observation, if he said so himself. Astute meaning “smart.” And if life was being difficult, sometimes you take things into your own hands.

He was grateful for Mercer’s attention to appearances for another reason. The lights made watching Mercer easier. The lights will pose a problem later, but he’d worked out that angle. He tapped ash from his cigarette into the car’s ashtray.

The globes on the antique lampposts along the Colorado Street Bridge near where he was parked also turned on. That was a pretty view from the freeway too. It was the first Saturday of September, the middle of the Labor Day holiday weekend. The evening was just how he liked it–clear, warm, and not too smoggy for the city. Not much traffic or people. It would be a fine weekend to do some fishing, but the payoff of the sport he was engaged in now ultimately would be more satisfying.

Mercer walked out onto one of the terraces, holding a martini. The man was a creature of habit.

“Look at him up there, acting like he’s master of his domain,” he nearly shouted to no one. “King of the hill. What’s that old Beatles song? The fool of the hill. No, on the hill. That’s it. Fool on the hill.”

He hummed a few bars of the tune. Grinding out his cigarette, he said, “Showtime.”

He craned his neck to look at himself in the rearview mirror then turned the key in the ignition. He circled the cul-de-sac and headed for the bridge to cross the arroyo.

At Mercer’s driveway, he punched in the code to open the gate. He’d gotten it by watching the housekeeper when she came to work. Even the stupidest criminal wouldn’t have any trouble getting into this place. And he was not a stupid criminal.

He rang the doorbell, impressed with the pleasing musical notes it emitted. He turned his back to the peephole, knowing that Mercer would open the door for a blonde. He could almost count the steps it took Mercer to get to the door from the terrace. He’d look through the peephole and wonder what the intrusion was about. Then he’d open the door, still holding his martini.

The door opened and there was Mercer, holding the martini.

“Hello, Oliver. I love it when people fulfill my expectations.”

Mercer blinked at his visitor, as if having trouble taking it all in.

“Such an ugly scowl, Oliver. Not very hospitable.”

“Who the hell are you? Maybe I should ask what are you? A man dressed like a woman?”

“I hate when people criticize things they don’t understand.”

Before Mercer could close the door on him, he kicked it open, knocking Mercer to the floor, the high heels doing a good job. The hunting knife was out and he started stabbing and stabbing.

Later, after whacking off another piece with the chainsaw, he cut the motor and stepped back to admire his work, taking a drag on his cigarette. If he had it to do over again, he would have rethought the chainsaw. It made a mess, splattering little bits of meat all over him and everything else. He took a bottle of Miss Dior from the pocket of his plastic apron and dabbed more beneath his nostrils.

The doorbell rang, followed by rapid knocking. Still holding the chainsaw, he wiped a gloved hand against the apron in a wasted gesture. He was covered in blood and gore. His dress was ruined. He figured it would be and hadn’t worn one of his favorites. He looked through the peephole and tsked tsked.

Standing behind the door, he opened it a crack.

Lauren Richards tentatively pushed it and took a step inside. “Oliver? Are you playing games with me?”

She gasped at the trail of blood in the marble entryway and took a step toward it in spite of herself. Her mouth twisted in horror, her eyes fell upon the disassembled corpse of Oliver Mercer on the living room floor. At least, she thought it was Oliver. His arms and legs were in pieces, disassembled at the joints, the hands and feet cut off. The severed body parts were rearranged.

She made strangled squeaking noises through her palms pressed against her mouth.

A hand snatched her arm and flung her inside where she slipped on the blood-slick marble. The door slammed closed. She looked up from the floor to see him and the bloody butcher’s apron, women’s clothes, and blond wig. She didn’t know if his mouth was covered in blood or smeared lipstick.

He still held the chain saw. A burning cigarette dangled from his lips.

He shook his head.

“Oh, honey. Talk about wrong place, wrong time.”

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