In a breathtaking infinity pool on a sprawling Pasadena estate, the naked body of a beautiful young woman floats facedown in a drift of rose petals blowing on the breeze. Police sergeant Jim Kissick responds instantly, pulling the dead victim from the water. When his longtime girlfriend, Detective Nan Vining, arrives on-scene, she’s full of questions, and not just about the Jane Doe. Why did the homeowner text Jim instead of calling 911? Jim’s explanation—that he’s simply an old friend of Teddy and Rebecca Sexton’s—doesn’t sit well with Nan. A survivor of a bizarre murder attempt herself, Nan’s instincts for deception are acute. She senses that they’re all hiding something—including Jim, which plunges a wedge deep into their once steadfast relationship.
Then a drought-ravaged lake in a bucolic Central California town reveals a grisly secret. Soon two local detectives arrive in Pasadena to interview Jim and his wealthy friends about a mysterious death from years back, and Nan realizes she has good reasons for her suspicions. Jim’s always been her rock, but suddenly he’s become a stranger. And once Nan identifies her Jane Doe, events careen out of control as darkness from the past threatens to consume the life that Nan has worked so hard to rebuild.
[st_panel title=”Acclaim” state=”open”]
“Emley once again continues to deftly bring Vining to life in a way that rings true.” —Elizabeth A. White, book reviewer and editor
“Hurtles the reader down a razor’s edge of suspense.”—Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author
“Intricate, involving, suspenseful…”—Robert Crais, New York Times bestselling author
“Kept me enraptured from beginning to end…” —Dru’s Book Musings
[st_panel title=”Read an Excerpt” state=”closed”]
The nude woman floated facedown in an infinity pool, her pleasing curves caressed by pink rose petals, which an errant Santa Ana wind gust, blowing hard and hot, had tossed atop the water from the nearby bushes like stolen kisses. The hilltop setting took advantage of wraparound views across Pasadena and Los Angeles. The blue hues of the pool’s glass tiles cast the water in the same color as the clear blue sky, creating the illusion of a waterfall flowing over the edge of the world. A submerged rim kept the woman from going over, but the artificial current made a gauzy curtain of her long blond hair and carried along the paper-light rose petals, paler in color than her reddened fair skin, descending into the churning water of a catch basin below.
Sergeant Jim Kissick was panting after his mad sprint up a steep gravel path across the estate’s back gardens to the upper terrace. Still, he sucked in a breath and held it when he set eyes on the woman, and stood frozen for crucial moments. He had a seasoned cop’s conceit of believing he’d seen everything, but he grimaced even though this scene wasn’t especially grisly. He snapped back into action and keyed the radio mic on the shoulder of his uniform, struggling to calm his voice and not betray the panic that surged inside his chest. “I need an RA unit and backup to respond to my location for a female who’s been facedown in a backyard swimming pool at the residence for an unknown time.”
With his thumbs, he flipped open his belt keepers, dropped his utility belt to the ground, and kicked off his soft-soled oxfords. Right before he leaped, instinct made him whip his head around to see a blind man, who was holding the harness of a guide dog, and a second man all heading up the packed gravel path toward the pool.
Kissick muttered a curse, wasting time to stop and yell at the blind man, “Teddy, sit back down at that table!” He jutted his index finger toward a patio outside a hulking mansion in the distance and again took off, not waiting to see whether Teddy Sexton would obey, assuming he probably wouldn’t. Jim’s long legs made short work of the hilltop retreat’s travertine pavers, his eyes fixed on the floating woman, her golden hair, and the rippling water shining in the last light of the early October afternoon. Nearing the pool, he saw what looked like a little blood in the water—or maybe it was the imperfect pink of some of the rose petals, which had a streak of crimson at the base.
Even though the athletic sergeant, who was in his forties, was focused and fast, he felt the uncanny but not unfamiliar sensation he’d experienced during extreme stress of being detached from his body while time slowed down. At the water’s edge, he observed himself raising his hands above his head and diving in. For a moment, he felt suspended in the air above the water, supported by an act of God or the devil or by memories of lost love and the enduring sting of regret. Certainly, after more than two decades had passed, he thought he’d moved beyond it, yet here he was, mesmerized by its power to hold him between what had been and what was about to come.
His gaze was drawn toward the silky hair undulating in the water and he remembered as if it were yesterday, running his fingers through that hair, burying his face in it, and inhaling its perfume. Becca’s hair had always smelled perfumed. She’d told him the only thing she ever put in it was coconut-scented shampoo, the cheap store brand. Just over two decades ago, they were college students—he at UCLA and she at Santa Monica College—and always broke. Shampoo didn’t explain why her hair kept its unique fragrance even when it was briny with ocean water and gritty with sand after a day swimming and sunning at Will Rogers State Beach. After, they’d make love in his room in a Westwood apartment, halfheartedly trying to stifle their cries, him sheepish when coming out to face his two male roommates while Becca, glowing and smelling of sex and finding it all hilarious, sashayed to the fridge and took out two Coronas. Jim had thought everything about her was wonderful. He couldn’t get enough of her. Then tragedy struck and he had to let her go.
Jim hit the water and swam to the floating woman. Grabbing her from behind, he raised her head from the water and hooked his left arm around her chest, bracing her against him. There was blood in the water beneath her, though not a lot. The recirculating pump had likely diluted it. He swam to the shallow end, stroking with his free arm and frog-kicking his legs, his body weighted down by his saturated Kevlar vest, T-shirt, and uniform. When his feet touched bottom, he grabbed her beneath her armpits, clasped his hands across her chest, and hoisted her from the water while clambering up the pool steps. Now on the pool deck, he turned her to face the travertine and slapped her back to knock water from her mouth and throat.
Placing her on her back, he saw her face for the first time and again had that disorienting detached feeling, which he shook off, not letting it slow him down. He did a snapshot assessment of her injuries while feeling for a pulse on her neck. Her nose was smashed, flattened toward the right, swollen purple and red. That injury seemed to be the source of the blood, because he didn’t see other wounds beyond an abrasion and bruising on her left cheek. She didn’t appear to have been in the water long.
He didn’t detect a pulse and began CPR, letting his years of training take over, ignoring the questions in his mind and everything that was dissonant with what he’d expected. He focused on rhythmically compressing her chest with one hand atop the other, stopping periodically to breathe into her mouth between her icy lips, trying to restart her heart while feeling in his gut that it was futile. He heard distant sirens growing louder and whining to a stop, followed by the organized hustling of the first responders with their equipment. Jim kept up the CPR, relieved at the thought of turning over this thankless job to others. Let someone else pronounce her dead.
When he again rose up to resume compressing her chest, he’d regained sufficient composure to take a good look at her damaged face and process what he’d instinctively known from the moment he’d grabbed her in the water. This woman was not Rebecca, his Becca, who’d been long married to Teddy Sexton. The dead woman was at least twenty years younger than Rebecca’s age today, but she looked so much like Becca, she could be her sister or even a daughter. Becca didn’t have either as far as Jim knew, but he’d come to learn that his long-lost love had unplumbed depths. As he rhythmically and hopelessly worked to restart the victim’s heart, staring at her eyes beneath partially closed lids—milky in death, but he imagined that in life they matched Becca’s pale blue—an old saying of his grandmother’s came to him. He wondered if one of Becca’s chickens had come home to roost.
“There’s women’s clothing on that chair,” Jim Kissick said to Pasadena Police Detective Nan Vining as he pointed at patio furniture in a corner of the pool deck. She was the lead investigator in Homicide/Assault and Jim, the first officer on the scene, was briefing her. This was her crime scene now. He was six feet tall and in her low-heeled shoes she was almost the same height, able to peer straight into his hazel eyes, but he was avoiding her gaze, which was uncharacteristic for him. Nan found it odd but wrote it off to Jim’s having been especially disturbed by this death even though they’d tackled much grislier scenes.
“Haven’t found a purse, cellphone, keys, or ID.” Jim’s polyester PPD uniform had almost dried in the arid heat. He’d taken off his soggy black T-shirt, Kevlar vest, and socks and had draped them over a chaise longue. His feet in his black oxfords were bare. “There’s ice plant covering the hill on the other side of the pool. Forensics has a couple of people searching there now. No clue how the victim entered the property. No unidentified vehicles on or near the estate. Terrence already has feet on the ground doing knock-and-talks.” He was speaking of Lieutenant Terrence Folke, who was the incident commander.
They were standing in the shade of a magnolia tree a few yards from where a canvas canopy had been set up beside the pool to shield the victim from the sun, still brutal at 5:00 P.M., and news helicopters, which buzzed over the scene. Nan’s partner, Detective Alex Caspers, was beneath the canopy, observing the coroner’s investigator, Hank Spangler, as he examined the dead woman.
Jim planted his hands on his hips beneath his lean waist and, squinting in the direction of Hank, a seasoned investigator whom Jim and Nan had worked with many times, watched as Hank tenderly palpated the woman’s broken nose. Jim and Nan had been longtime partners in Homicide/Assault until he’d been promoted to sergeant. After spending months on a coveted assignment with the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, Jim had come home and taken a position in the PPD’s Field Operations and was back on the streets of Pasadena pushing a cruiser. Nan was now the most seasoned investigator in Homicide/Assault. The career moves, while initially disruptive to their well-honed routines, had proved to be energizing both intellectually and personally. It had been liberating to finally be in the open about their long-rumored romance. They were both divorced with teenagers at home. They were lovers and best friends and were planning on spending the rest of their lives together.
While Jim watched the coroner’s investigator with the body, he seemed to become lost in thought. Nan had always been able to read him, but since she’d arrived on the scene, he’d seemed different. Not one to mince words, she asked, “Is something going on with you?”
He returned his attention to her, appearing slightly disoriented—as if he’d just woken from a deep sleep. “Everything’s fine.” He sounded peeved that she’d asked.
His response telegraphed to her that things weren’t fine. Normally he would have told her what was on his mind, but he was being evasive. “It doesn’t seem like everything’s fine. What’s wrong?”
He rubbed a hand over his face and raked his fingers through his thick hair. “I’m tired. It’s been . . .” During a pause, he again frowned in the direction of the body. “A long day.”
Unconvinced, she didn’t want to further annoy him so she let it drop.
“Does Hank have a TOD estimate?” Jim changed the subject and proceeded with the mundane aspects of their terrible task.
“Between noon and three.” She matched his businesslike tone.
He clenched his jaw and nodded, meeting her eyes for a brief second. “I sent a cruiser with two officers to pick up Rebecca Sexton from her client’s house off Mulholland in the Hollywood Hills. They should be back soon. Teddy, Rebecca’s husband, told me that Becca’s client picked her up and drove her to his house. Becca’s car was still in the garage when Teddy and his assistant arrived home after being out most of the day.”
“What does Becca do?” Nan thought that Jim calling Mrs. Sexton by a nickname was overly familiar with someone she assumed he didn’t know. Since he’d set the tone, though, she again followed.
“She’s an art consultant. Advises people who collect art about what they should buy.”
Nan sensed Jim’s enthusiasm heighten when he spoke of Rebecca Sexton. Maybe her assumption about Jim and Becca not knowing each other was wrong.
Jim looked across the sloping, terraced garden at the rear of the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion and its huge backyard. “Teddy’s assistant is Floyd Johansing, who’s also Becca’s brother. He and Teddy are in the kitchen inside the house. Got Aaron Faraday posted there with them.”
Nan nodded, as she knew the strapping PPD officer. She took a small spiral pad and a pen from a pocket of her suit jacket and began taking notes. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alex Caspers begin walking from beneath the canvas canopy and head toward them. She raised her right index finger at him, still grasping the pen in her hand. The young detective got the message and returned to crouch down beside the coroner’s investigator and the body. There was something deeper going on with Jim beyond establishing time and events, and Nan didn’t want Alex adding his trademark off-color observations.
“By the way, Floyd has a criminal history.” Jim saw the exchange between Nan and Alex and didn’t comment. “Did time in jail and prison, mostly for jackass stuff. Bar fights and scuffles. He did three years at San Quentin for stealing a motorcycle in a dispute over a debt. Grabbed a tire iron and threatened the other guy.” He made a gesture showing that he couldn’t account for Floyd’s behavior.
“You ran a background check on him?”
“No.” Jim ran a hand over his wavy sandy-brown hair. “I already knew about his past. I’ve known Becca and Floyd and Teddy a long time. Met them when I was a student at UCLA.”
“That explains a lot,” Nan said. “You spoke as if you knew them.”
“Yeah.” Jim looked sideways, hesitating before continuing. “Teddy was my boss for about a year. He owned a nightclub in Westwood Village called Sexton’s. I worked there part-time at night as a busboy. Becca was a waitress. Teddy, Becca, and I chased around together. Partied. It was the nineties.” He hiked a shoulder, signifying that naming the era covered a lot of ground. “Floyd ran with our group. Back then he was living near Lake Nacimiento.”
Nan’s expression conveyed that she didn’t know the place.
“It’s up in San Luis Obispo County. The northern part. Out in the country. That’s where Becca and Floyd grew up.” He again gave a little apologetic shrug, a weak gesture, which was atypical for him and heightened Nan’s suspicions that there was much more going on than he was revealing.
“You and the Sextons are more than acquaintances.”
Nan sucked in her cheeks, mulling it over. “I don’t recall you ever mentioning them to me.”
“They were people I used to chase around with and we drifted apart. I graduated from UCLA. Married Julie. Moved to the San Gabriel Valley. Had kids. Teddy and Becca got married. Stayed on the Westside. We drifted,” he repeated, pulling down the edges of his lips as if he couldn’t offer a better explanation. “When Teddy and Becca moved to Pasadena, we started running into each other. Saw them at charity events, organizations the three of us happen to be involved in. The Boys and Girls Club, Hillsides . . . um . . . Huntington Hospital. We’d have a drink, catch up, laugh about the old times, and that’s about it.” He smiled at her but his smile wavered at one corner.
“Okay.” Nan couldn’t figure out why talking about the Sextons made him uncomfortable. She again let it go. “Give me a recap of what you know about the Sextons’ and Floyd’s time and events today leading up to when Teddy sent you that text.”
“Sure. Teddy and Floyd and Lucette—she’s Teddy’s guide dog—left the house here around eight forty-five this morning. Teddy had a doctor’s appointment, and they went out for lunch, ran errands, and came home around three thirty. That’s when they saw that Becca’s car was in the garage and they assumed she was still home.”
“Was anyone on the property between eight forty-five and three thirty?”
“Becca was still home when Teddy and Floyd left. I don’t know when her client picked her up. Becca will be here soon and you can ask her.”
“Any household help here? A maid or gardeners?”
“There’s a full-time housekeeper, Elisa. Don’t know her last name. She was helping her mom and wasn’t here today. The gardeners weren’t here.”
Nan jotted notes. “What happened after Teddy, Floyd, and the dog came home?”
“Floyd let Lucette loose in the backyard and then he joined Teddy in the kitchen and started putting away groceries. Teddy yelled up the back stairs for Becca. He was about to go looking for her, thinking she was in her office, when they heard Lucette barking like crazy. Floyd went to check it out. He found Lucette by the pool, barking at a woman floating in the water. Floyd grabbed the dog and ran back inside the house. He told Teddy that Becca was facedown in the pool and Teddy texted me.”
“Floyd saw what he thought was his sister floating facedown in the pool, not moving, probably in distress. Why didn’t he jump in and see if she was okay?”
Jim raised his hands. “He just didn’t. I left that for you to grill him about.”
“And you came here immediately after you read Teddy’s text, correct?”
“Yes.” Jim spread his feet shoulder distance apart. Light shining through the branches and leaves of a huge magnolia tree speckled onto his hair, highlighting the blond in the sandy brown. The sunlight didn’t touch his hazel eyes, and his usually lively gaze looked dark and piercing.
“What exactly did the text say?”
With his right thumb, Jim unsnapped a pocket on his leather utility belt and took out his phone. He brought up Teddy’s text message and handed the phone to Nan.
She read the message aloud. “‘Come to Casa de las Ventanas right away. There’s trouble with Becca.’” She forwarded the message. Shortly, her phone in her slacks pocket pinged with the incoming text. She didn’t return Jim’s phone to him but brushed the screen, reading through some of his other texts with Teddy. When he shifted his feet and looked annoyed, she returned his phone. “His message lacks urgency under the circumstances, wouldn’t you say?”
Jim slid the phone back inside its leather pocket. “I agree. I got here in about five minutes. Teddy met me at the door and said that Becca was facedown in the pool and not moving. I took off running, called for backup, pulled the victim from the water, and tried to revive her.”
“Finally, somebody cares about this woman’s welfare. Why did Floyd mistake the dead woman for Rebecca?”
“The victim is the same size and coloring as Rebecca.”
Nan exhaled loudly in exasperation and made a face showing disbelief as she scribbled notes.
“Nan, I know. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Floyd sees a woman he thinks is his sister apparently lifeless in a swimming pool and he runs to get a blind man to help him. And yes, Floyd knows how to swim. He grew up near a lake. He was always in the water.”
“Does Floyd hate his sister?”
“I’ve always known them to be pretty close. Floyd lives on the property. I think in that carriage house.” Jim pointed to one of two outbuildings on the far side of the garden.
“What about Teddy? Are he and his wife having problems?”
“Teddy’s no walk in the park to live with. He has his quirks, for sure, but murder? He’s too much of a fussbudget.” He laughed, looking into her green-gray eyes, which were framed by naturally arched, nearly black eyebrows, the same color as her shoulder-length hair.
Nan wasn’t amused. “Teddy believes his wife is in grave trouble but instead of calling nine-one-one, he wastes precious time sending you a text. A vaguely worded text. Teddy’s blind and vulnerable, so he of all people would know what to do in an emergency and it shouldn’t be texting you. You find humor in this situation?”
Jim stopped smiling. “I’m not immune to what you’re saying. I’m giving you information about the players that can help guide your investigation. Teddy marches to his own drummer. He’s used to people doing things for him. He’s a trust fund baby. Never had to work. His father made a ton of money in California real estate in the seventies. Actually, losing his sight turned his life around. Forced him to struggle for the first time and gave him depth and purpose that he’d never had before. He’s a better person. Since he went blind, he’s devoted his life to helping others and has become an inspiration to many people, especially children. He wrote a book about his life that teachers assign in their classes. But he’s still the same old Teddy in a lot of ways.”
“When did he go blind?”
“In 1993. Was drunk and wrapped his MGB Roadster around a tree.”
“What about Floyd, your sweet-hearted felon. You don’t consider him a suspect?”
“Of course he’s a suspect. Teddy’s a suspect. I’m not disputing that. But you need to know how grateful Floyd is to have this job. He won’t do anything to jeopardize it. He’s Teddy’s handmaiden and it’s hard work. He doesn’t zig or zag without asking Teddy first. Teddy can be an SOB. His assistants usually only last a year or two before he fires them or they flee.”
Jim ran his hands over his uniform shirt. “I’m heading home to take a shower and have a cold beer. I was supposed to be off two hours ago. You know where to find me.”
“One last thing. What were you doing when you received Teddy’s text?”
Jim responded without hesitation and a little forcefully. “I was supervising a multicar accident with injuries on North Lake and Mountain.” When her lips parted, he added, without giving her time to speak, “We were buttoning it up. I handed it off and came over here.”
They fixed their eyes on each other’s. Nan detected challenge in Jim’s gaze, as if guessing what was on her mind and daring her to say it. They both knew he’d done a bad thing. He’d been in charge of a serious accident and had abandoned it. At best he’d be verbally reprimanded and at worst he’d be suspended or even fired.
“Jim, you just told me that you’re not close with the Sextons anymore, but when Teddy texts you to come to his house because there’s some trouble with his wife, you leave an active accident scene and speed over here. What am I missing?”
“I already explained Teddy’s MO.” His eyes, normally bright and flecked with amber and green, had turned mossy and dim, something that Nan had seen happen when he was troubled. “I’m not withholding information from you.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“That’s what you’re implying.” His engaging, boyish smile felt tentative and forced to her. The sarcasm in his next comment was undeniable. “You know my life’s an open book.”
She took it as a jab at her and bristled. They both knew she had her share of secrets, things she’d done to fight evil with evil, some he knew, and some he didn’t dare ask her about. After thinking for a few seconds, it occurred to her that maybe his comment wasn’t about her. Maybe she was brushing against a secret part of his life. “That’s what I’ve always believed, Boy Scout.”
He breathed out sharply through his nose in a half laugh without amusement. “Is there anything else, Nan?”
“Have you ever seen the victim before?”
Jim drew in a long breath and exhaled slowly before answering. “No. But she’s a dead ringer for Rebecca when she was about twenty years younger.”