The call had come in at 5:22 a.m. Sunday morning. Deputies Lopez and Gearhard drove their cruiser through the first set of massive gates into the ultra-posh Oakridge Estates where they were responding to what is known as a code 2115, a silent alarm triggered at one of the multimillion dollar mansions. By the time the deputies pulled through the last gate and were making the turn to the top of the ridge, Gearhard had relayed all the salient information about the residence to her partner. The owner of record was listed as the Bloomberg Family Trust but the property was being leased by a man named Casius Arcano. According to the data, Mr. Arcano was halfway through his one-year lease and there was no prior history of alarms or calls to the address in that time. Being their regular beat, Lopez and Gearhard were very familiar with the area. They knew first hand that the residents took their security and privacy very seriously. It was not uncommon, however, for an alarm to be triggered by a raccoon wandering in through a doggie door. It was also not unheard of for a high- profile resident to hit their panic button because some sleazy paparazzo had somehow managed to hike through miles of back canyon and up the ridge that separated the community from basically everything else. Most of the residents that backed up to the ridge had their own on-site security teams to watch out for paparazzi which also helped to deter the would-be burglar as well. The property in question gave no information that there was security staff on site and the alarm company had relayed to dispatch that the camera feed to their monitoring facilities were blacked out and not functioning. While this little tid-bit made Gearhard excited, it made Lopez nervous.
The phrase "darkest before the dawn" didn't quite seem to cut it for how black as pitch the morning was. Even with the cruiser's high beams on, Lopez nearly missed the last turn. When they finally pulled up into the long driveway of the estate, they couldn't help but notice how the pitch- black theme continued. Not one glimmer of light could be seen coming from the house or the property. The hair on the back of Lopez's neck stood up and he immediately called in for additional support. Something was definitely not right here. Gearhard flipped on the cruiser's prowl light and slowly scanned over the grounds from left to right. Absolutely nothing. No car in the drive, no light anywhere, not even a breeze to shift the trees. It was eerie, still and quiet. Lopez tapped his radio for an ETA on their back-up and the stoic voice on the other end relayed that the nearest unit to them was still twenty minutes out. Too long.
"It's probably a stupid possum or raccoon." The eager Gearhard reassured her partner. "Or by the look of it, a power glitch. That would explain no cameras up."
"Yeah, maybe." Lopez was not convinced. "Stay sharp just the same." Lopez popped the trunk of the cruiser then exited the vehicle. Gearhard tried to stifle her excitement at her partner's silent decision to move in before support arrived. Lopez retrieved a shotgun from the trunk and fastened his flashlight to the barrel.
"We do a sweep around the perimeter then we knock." Lopez looked out into the darkness, letting his eyes adjust a bit better. "No sense in scaring the crap out of the resident if he's just asleep and clueless to the alarm."
Gearhard snorted. "Kinda like that guy that got home blasted drunk last month? Thought he was closing the garage door but was hitting his panic button then passed out on the kitchen floor?"
"Kinda." Lopez smirked at his partner then took the lead as they headed to the left side of the property.
They did a clockwise sweep of the mansion. Slowly and methodically they checked doors and windows, scanning their flashlights inside the home and across the landscape but seeing nothing. The wrong kind of nothing. The house appeared to be vacant. Not a stick of furniture could be seen inside as they worked their way back around to the entry doors. Lopez called in on his radio to update their status and inform dispatch they were going to enter the premises.
"Someone is supposed to be living here, right?" Lopez asked, looking at his partner with a furrowed brow.
"That's what the security company said." Gearhard confirmed with a shrug, her enthusiasm waning fast. "The watch commander at the first security gate would have said otherwise."
The entry doors to the home were massive. Two arched slabs of wood that stood at least ten feet high and were secured by seriously solid but beautiful iron hardware. At the center of each door, about eye-level were speakeasy doors with decorative iron grills fastened over the openings. Lopez expected that the doors were meant to be regal and elegant but he appreciated the functional aspect a hell of a lot more. It would take a solid ram to get through them. Gearhard took a chance and tried the latch and to both their surprise the door was unlocked. They postured themselves at the ready and nodded to each other before Gearhard swung the door open cautiously. Lopez went high, fanning his shotgun from left to right while Gearhard went low and panned right to left with her 9mm Beretta. They only took a single step inside before the odor hit them like a slap in the face.
"Holy Mother..." Gearhard gasped. "...what the hell?"
Lopez continued to scan the huge entry hall but was not seeing anything save for bare walls and the refracting light from the massive chandelier that hung low in the center of the room. He took a deep breath and held it, then listened carefully for a moment. He panned the beam of his flashlight towards a buzzing sound that seemed to be coming from about ten feet in front of him. There in the middle of the foyer floor they saw them. Three bodies laying shoulder to shoulder, neatly arranged on the ground, headless and rotting.
They sidestepped carefully to the left, avoiding the large pool of black that spread out from the bodies and was most certainly congealed blood. Silently Lopez gave Gearhard hand signals, instructing her that they were heading deeper into the house to do the requisite sweep. Just as they had done outside, they worked their way through the bottom floor in a clockwise manner, finding nothing but empty, hollow rooms. They came back around from the right into the foyer, worked their way up the grand staircase and continued through the upper level. Empty. Not one shred of anything to indicate the place had ever been inhabited. Lopez called in on his radio updating their status and they headed back downstairs just in time to meet their back-up walking in the doorway with guns at the ready. "It's secure. We just finished the sweep." Lopez announced to the deputies that were now joining them and seeing the macabre scene splayed
out on the foyer floor.
"Holy shit!" The uniformed officer that Lopez knew as Nichols covered his mouth as if that would prevent the stench from permeating his lungs. "We'll set up a perimeter and tape everything off, OK?"
"Yeah, OK. Homicide is on route." Gearhard skirted her way back to the entry doors, careful not to disturb the scene anymore then they already had. "Getting some air while I get my notes started."
"Right." Lopez nodded to her, acknowledging her need to catch her breath. "We are going to need to wake up the neighbors. Start a canvas. May as well get on that while we wait for the troops." Lopez knew that even though the sun had barely lit the horizon, it was going to be a very long day.
Detective Tallulah Louelle Donovan was sick of sleep. Lou felt like all she had been doing for weeks was sleep. She was well aware that it was barely over a month ago that she nearly died at the hands of a psychopathic serial killer but she was restless just the same. Every time she looked at herself in the mirror she was painfully reminded of how her injuries were nearly fatal. It often made her wish that she could put the bandages back on so she didn't have to see it so often. The thick red scar swathed across her body like the sash of a beauty pageant contestant. She felt like the furthest thing from a beauty. She felt hideous. As she examined the wound closely in the mirror she could see the indentations in her skin where the staples had been. It was raw still, both physically and mentally, no matter how much everyone tried to distract her. The ultimate cliché was her blaming herself for being taken the way she was. Sloppy. Only a naive civilian would have allowed their guard to be so let down that they would have fallen into such a predictable trap. Lou was not a civilian and she was not sloppy. Clumsy, she would concede to, but even that was confined to mornings, when she first woke up. Her Sleep Inertia often left her disoriented and out of sorts but she knew this, as did her family and her partner. They accounted for it and factored that in when they worked. It was part of what made her and Vinny such a good team. That, Lou accepted. What chapped her hide was having been abducted from such a huge, high-profile gathering, been drugged, stripped naked to face certain death with absolutely no way out. It was humiliating to her. That was something she was not going to put behind her for some time. Lou didn't do "victim" well.
She pulled her fluffy orange robe closed tight and grabbed her mug of coffee from the dressing table. As she headed for the terrace she tried to go through everything in her head again, make sense of it all. Her life had forever been altered on so many levels, even without factoring in the abduction. She knew, logically, that it was natural to be a bit off her game but she didn't have to like it. When she thought about everything that had transpired, she knew it was actually a good thing for her to be out on medical leave. While recovering from her injuries she had time to wrap her head around everything else.
Just over a month ago it had been business as usual. She was a hard- assed homicide detective for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and was in love with her job. That basically hadn't changed. It was the foundation of everything that had been pulled out from under her and it all began when she started investigating the gruesome murder of an underage drug addict and prostitute named Angela Talbott. The case from the get-go was off and wasn't really even her and her partner's to investigate. Technically it had been LAPD's jurisdiction but something about it stuck with Lou and she pursued it, despite her Captain's orders to the contrary. If she knew then what she knew now, Lou really wouldn't have changed anything. She was glad to be where she was. It was just going to take some getting used to.
Lou walked out into the chilly pre-dawn spring air and thought that perhaps she should have tried to sleep a little longer. The darkness consumed the landscape with the shock of navy blue sky making everything in the distance look like black cutouts. She settled in to her large papasan chair, tucking her legs in tight. Cupping her mug with both hands she savored the warmth of the ceramic against her palms. The quiet was almost as soothing as the mug of coffee. The croaking frogs and the first chirps from morning birds intermittently broke the silence but overall the quiet was as thick and cozy to her as her bathrobe. It was a truly welcomed change. Even though Lou had been recovering, the past several weeks had been a whirlwind of activity. Learning everything she possibly could about her new world, her new life, and the critical role she played in it. Looking out into the darkness she thought back again. Back to that chance encounter with a stranger in the hall of the County Morgue. Thinking about it even now made her knees weak, just as it had the moment she first set eyes on him when she passed him in that hall. It was a serious case of love/hate that he had that effect on her. She loved the butterflies, the breathlessness, the pure euphoric sensation she got even simply thinking about him. However, Lou hated how much she wanted the man. She needed to breathe the same air as him. It challenged the very core of her being, her fierce independence. Who knew that this stranger would turn her life upside down in so many ways. Maximilian Augustus Julian.
She looked out into the distance trying peer past the darkness to see the construction site of Max's home. As promised, they had kept the structure well off in the distance and only partially visible from her vantage point. It was too black to see anything really, but Lou noticed the absolute quiet and that meant they were not working. Strange. Max's people had gotten special permitting and dispensation from the County as well as the Homeowner's Association to work at all hours and had been true to their word being very considerate of noise. Usually Lou could hear something. A hum or a buzz of some sort from that direction but there was nothing. The framing looked complete the day before and it was an ongoing joke with Lou and her mother, asking each other every day if the house was finished yet. Maybe they were waiting for some inspection or something. Maybe she would sneak over and take a look at it later, if no one was around. Maybe it was important for her to see where the man that had defrosted her heart would be living. What rooms he would sit and read in. Where he would cook his meals, take his showers, lay and dream. Maybe of her.
The security light below her terrace popped on and snapped Lou back from her musings. She turned her attention just in time to catch sight of a family of raccoons trotting across the lawn. Lou smiled to herself as two babies stopped to wrestle in the dew soaked grass, chortling and grunting. Mom and dad raccoon finally intervened and lead the babes back up into the trees. Lou loved this land.
The McAllister compound was a home that Lou's step-father, Joe, had built for her mother for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary as a surprise. The twelve-thousand square foot Tuscan Mediterranean home was carefully planned and crafted on it's majestic ten acres to Joe's exact specifications and with the express request that Lou live there with them. Family, after all, was the most important thing.
Lou was born in Los Angeles but when she was five, and after a year of Joe's begging, her mother finally accepted his proposal and moved them to Galveston to live with him. Lou's father had been killed in the line of duty when she was only two. If truth be told she barely remembered him. Joe had long since become Lou's dad in every way that mattered to her. Even still, the memories Lou did have of her father were kept strong and vibrant through the stories her mother and uncle would tell her over the years. They made her proud and inspired her to follow in his and her uncle's footsteps. Lou moved back to L.A. after high school to attend college and applied to the Sheriff's Department just before graduation. Once accepted, she never looked back. Even though she was only five- feet, four-inches, she earned her reputation as a tough-as-nails cop with a bull-dog investigative style. No one, but no one, other than her mother and uncle called her Tallulah unless they wanted their ass handed to them in a paper bag. Lou's soft side was reserved solely for animals. As she watched the last baby raccoon waddle behind a huge oak and vanish into the landscape, Lou happily admitted she was a sucker for animals. It was people that she often had issues with. That was true now more than ever since no one was who they appeared to be.
Lou drank the last of her coffee and set the empty mug on the table beside her. The security light below finally shut off and the dark blue aura of morning wrapped all around her. She tucked her hands into the pockets of her robe and snuggled deeper into the chair, closing her eyes and allowing the peace and quiet of the morning to lull her to sleep for a little while longer.
Veteran Homicide Detective, Vincenzo DeLuca, pulled his standard department issue sedan up to the crime scene perimeter, shut off the engine and sat quietly for a moment. He looked out the windshield and took in the scene with the multitude of deputies guarding the perimeter and the forensics people ducking back and fourth under the tape. He missed his partner. It had been over a month since Lou had been injured and sidelined. It hit him hard. Life was throwing too many curve balls at him lately. In a little more then seven months he was going to be a father and that scared the crap out of him. As a result of a serious reality check, Vinny concluded that he needed to be around more for his family so he did the responsible thing and had taken and passed the lieutenant's exam. He knew it was the right thing to do but the thought of not being out in the field was really not settling well with him. He loved being a homicide detective and he loved working with his partner. Lou was his best friend and former partner's niece. She was his family too. With her recovering, homicide was down a man and with his making lieutenant, things were getting shuffled around more than he would like. Vinny was looking for his successor and it wasn't going well at all. Lou was tricky to partner with. She had a hard time snapping to in the morning so Vinny usually picked her up for work. She was stubborn as hell and often rubbed people the wrong way if left unchecked. Vinny had to find the right fit before he was even going to think of taking a seat behind a desk and leaving her with a stranger. Lou being out on medical leave had actually provided him the golden opportunity to properly vet the candidates without her considerable two-cents. He hadn't been the least bit happy with the first seven applicants, none of which even lasted a full day before he sent them packing. Vinny couldn't give up hope though. He knew it would probably take a dozen tries before he would find someone he felt could truly have Lou's back and do the job right. He would meet contestant number eight in an hour or so. In the meantime, they had a whopper of a case on their hands and he really wished Lou was with him.
With a heavy sigh, Vinny got out of the car and headed into the trenches. It was a magnificent house even with the onslaught of deputies, investigators and coroner personnel trampling all over the yard. As he approached the front doors he got nods and acknowledgments from the masses. Vinny liked being liked. It was going to come in handy with his transition to management. When he finally reached the front doorway he grabbed a pair of blue paper booties from a box on the ground and pulled them over his loafers then reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of thick latex gloves. With a crisp snap of the latex, he was sufficiently prepared to proceed. Upon entering the home he immediately saw the forensic team at work in the foyer. The cavernous formal entry was brightly lit with both portable lights and the sparkly glow of the giant crystal chandelier hanging directly over the scene. At the center of the room was a large pool of congealed blood that spread out thickly over the highly polished marble floor. There in the middle lay three bodies, snugly placed side by side like sardines in a can. Vinny could only see the lower half of the victims because deputy medical examiner Caroline Devereux was sprawled out on tip toes, hovering, obscuring his view of the upper torsos of the bodies. Even though they were clearly past the two day dead mark, the deceased appeared to be men. High priced suits and even higher priced shoes sagged in the middle of the bloody puddle. When Caroline stood up and twirled around in a move he thought only a ballerina could make, Vinny got the first sight of the fact that the victims had been decapitated. "Riddle me this one Bratman." Caroline grinned at him. "You happen to see these guys' heads on your way in?" The cheery southern belle stretched out one leg carefully then tiptoed out of the blood pool towards him and removed her gloves.
"There's something ya don't see every day. Mornin' Doc." Vinny smiled at Caroline then looked back at the conundrum.
"Morning Vinny. No crash-test dummy today?" Caroline had taken to calling Vinny's prospective replacements the colorful but ironically accurate term. She snickered as she took a paper cup handed to her by one of the techs and happily sipped.
"Not yet. Got another contestant coming in though. I sent word for them to meet me here. Baptism by fire so to speak." Vinny smirked.
"Good idea! I'll slow down so I can get a shot at him. It a him or a
her?" Caroline popped the plastic lid off the paper mug so she could gulp the caffeine.
Vinny looked at her sideways. "You think I would put Lou with a girl? She barely likes you." He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "So what have we got here Doc? This looks a little hinky."
"A little?" Caroline snorted, careful not to choke on her coffee. "We got three males. From left to right we have a Latino, a Caucasian and another Latino. No I.D. on any of them or from the thumb scan but I uploaded the prints to the lab for a full search so I'll let you know as soon as we get anything."
Vinny nodded and wished he had his own coffee. "OK, what else?" "Preliminary time of death is about twenty-four to thirty hours ago. Sometime between late Friday night and early Saturday morning." Caroline stepped away from the scene and carefully removed her blue booties then stuffed them in a bio-hazard bag that was set up next to the front door. "I will be able to narrow that down a bit better once I get them back to the shop and the bugs are processed."
"So no heads on site huh? Seriously?" He looked at the scene carefully. It took a bit of work to accomplish this.
"Seriously. Your guys are going over the place with a fine tooth comb but from what I have seen so far, there is not one drop of blood outside this circle here. No tissue, no spatter, nothing."
Vinny had noticed the lack of blood spatter right off. The chandelier was spotless and gleaming, the walls could have passed for freshly painted and the floor outside of the pool itself were polished to a mirror finish. Given the volume of blood that was present, it appeared to Vinny that this was their primary crime scene, where the bodies bled out, but decapitation was a messy business. Whether the heads were chopped off, sawed off or whatever, there would be some sort of spatter, spray or cast-off as a result. Despite appearances, the forensics team was swabbing everything and scanning every inch with their magic flashlights. If something was there, they would find it.
Caroline looked past Vinny and saw the detectives assigned to the case heading their way.
"Here comes Cagney and Lacy. I'm sure they will fill you in." She finished her sentence with an eye-roll, clearly expressing her dislike for the detectives.
"Ah crap. I forgot they were on call." Vinny turned around to meet the detectives and took an authoritative stance that made Caroline grin.
Two female detectives walked up the path, both flipping through their notepads and scowling like they were looking for a fight. The pair did in fact resemble the characters from the television series that ran for the better part of the nineteen-eighties. Detective Sara Rochelle had cropped jet black hair and an extremely thick Brooklyn accent. She had joined the Sheriff's department after working vice on the East Coast for seven years and despite having glowing recommendations on paper, it was well known that she left Brooklyn to avoid being caught up in a serious internal affairs fiasco. Off the record, Vinny's captain had warned him that Rochelle had a reputation back East for pushing the envelope with suspects, just dancing on the edge of police brutality. Nothing could ever be proven and no one ever filed a formal complaint against her but Vinny didn't trust her all the same.
Detective Lydia Barnes was the taller of the two and had impossibly short bleach-blond, spiky hair. As usual, she looked like she spent all her spare time working out at Muscle Beach down in Venice. She was extremely tan and had a very masculine physique. Vinny was certain she could crush his head like a walnut simply by clapping her hands. He was really glad the captain had told him in confidence that she was gunning for a transfer to the Special Enforcement Bureau. Neither detective liked Vinny or Lou and they made no secret of it. He was sure it fried both of their asses that he had made lieutenant and was now their superior. A fact that was clearly confirmed as Rochelle completely ignored him and directed her attentions to Caroline.
"What have you got for me Devereux?" Rochelle's thick accent only accentuated her annoyance.
Caroline cocked her head and looked at the woman with disbelief. Not acknowledging Vinny as an individual was one thing, but snubbing her lieutenant was wholly unprofessional and insubordinate. Rochelle simply stared at Caroline waiting, totally oblivious to how her behavior was inappropriate.
Caroline finally rolled her eyes at the stubby woman which made Vinny think she must have had a headache from all her eye-rolling. "I already relayed my findings thus far to your lieutenant. I'll forward my report when it's done." Caroline turned her back on Rochelle, grabbed a set of fresh booties and pulled them over her shoes. "Nice to see you again Lieutenant DeLuca." She winked at him before she moved back into the house to continue her work.
"Morning Lieutenant." Barnes stepped up and addressed Vinny directly, clearly trying to make up for her partner's major faux pas. "So far we have deputies responding to a silent alarm that was triggered at approximately 5:21 a.m. The security company informed dispatch that the residence was equipped with full surveillance for the entire property. The live feed streams directly to their facilities and is supposed to be monitored twenty-four-seven. However, the feed was blacked out or otherwise disabled at around 1:07 a.m. Unfortunately, no one at the monitoring facility noticed it until the silent alarm was triggered." Barnes flipped through the pages of her notebook before she continued. "They are cooperating and sending us all of the footage they have for the past several days and we are meeting with the chief security manager once we are done here."
"The source of the alarm?" Vinny ignored Rochelle completely and
directed his questions to Barnes.
"Well that's a mystery in itself." Barnes ruffled the top of her spiky head. "When Lopez and Gearhard entered the premises the alarm system was not only disengaged but completely dead. No power to any of the control panels or the cameras, which explains the black out. Our techs are looking at it right now but no wires were cut and the back-up battery is in-tact. There is a lot here that isn't making any sense right off the bat."
"Like what?" Vinny really wanted a cup of coffee right about now. "The house is totally clean. No furniture, bare floors vacuumed
clean, not a piece of lint or dust anywhere. The kicker is that security for the community had no clue the resident moved out. They have the current resident listed as Casius Arcano, with a regular in and out pattern morning and evening. Other than a large cocktail party at the residence last Saturday, there have been no visitors or deliveries to this address since then. Nothing has deviated out of the norm and they say he is very friendly with the guards. Last entry for him was coming in Friday evening at 6:32 p.m. like usual. There have been no movers in or out of the entire community for any resident in over a week. No trucks other than UPS and FedEx that could possibly have cleaned this place out. The watch commander for the community is all over this."
Vinny considered the implications of what Barnes was telling him. "Those two gates the only way in or out of here?"
"Yes sir. Well, I guess you could do a hike up the canyon but no way in hell could you move furniture out that way or bring in a crew and all the equipment needed to get this place so spotless. Forensics is coming up with nothing anywhere in the house so far. Not one single fingerprint, not on a knob or even the faucets. This place was scrubbed clean and recently."
Vinny nodded in understanding despite really not understanding how all this was possible. "Devereux is putting time of death between late Friday night and early Saturday morning so clean up had to take place after that. Cutting those heads off made a royal mess, no two ways about it, but someone wanted things neat and tidy for us." Vinny looked back at the bodies and tried working it out in his head.
"We don't know they were decapitated here." Rochelle's condescending tone oozed out of her. "That's pure speculation. They could have been dumped here."
"Despite the glaringly obvious conclusion an experienced homicide detective would make given the volume of blood you can barely avoid tripping over when you walk into this place, I don't recall ever factually concluding they were decapitated here, Detective Rochelle." Vinny looked at her hard then turned his gaze on Barnes. "Did I, Detective Barnes?"
"No sir." Barnes shook her head, much like a dog would wag her tail in anticipation of a treat. "Your only assertion, sir, was that a mess would have been made and that someone wanted things tidy."
Vinny nodded. "That's what I thought too. Thanks for clearing that up for me. It's called deductive reasoning, Detective Rochelle. You should try it sometime." He gave Rochelle a scowl then looked past her as he noticed a large figure coming up the driveway. "Go get updates from the forensics teams while I deal with whoever this is. I want a full report on everything before you take off to meet with that security manager."
"Yes sir." Barnes turned on her heal and headed down the cobble path with an almost robotic determination. Rochelle muttered something under her breath, shoved her notepad into her jacket pocket then slumped after her partner without another word.
With the heavy-duty lighting set up to illuminate the house, Vinny could only make out the black silhouette of a behemoth headed towards him. Squinting against the glare and forgetting the blue paper booties on his feet, Vinny stepped out the threshold and met the approaching man on the porch. A porch, Vinny noted, that was the size of his entire backyard. "Lieutenant DeLuca? Sir?" The man stretched out his hand to Vinny. "Yeah? Who's asking?" Vinny squinted to get a good look at the fellow, hesitant to accept the offered hand.
"Sir, I'm Detective Dillon Cole. I was instructed to come here rather than the Bureau." He continued to hold his hand out, certain that recognition would kick in any second.
"Oh! Yeah!" Vinny promptly shook the man's hand and noticed that despite only being a few inches taller, the man seemed huge to him. "Right, sorry. I forgot I told them to have you meet me here. I figure we could hit the ground running, see how you do."
Dillon Cole was a carefully chiseled slab of heavy duty stone. As solid and imposing as a mountain. He stood six-feet, three-inches and instantly reminded Vinny of a Roman gladiator, the way he was built. With a sharp jaw and keen green eyes, Vinny got the impression right away that this guy would be excellent protection for Lou on the streets. It didn't hurt that Lou would probably only make it to his elbows as far as height went. The image made him chuckle to himself.
"Alright." Vinny got back to business. "Let's show you what we got, make the rounds then you'll give me your impressions. We'll go from there."
"Yes, Sir." Dillon retrieved a small, leather-bound notebook from his inside jacket pocket and immediately began scribbling notes.
Vinny couldn't help but notice that Dillon was not looking at the paper as he wrote. It made him a little jealous. That talent could come in real handy when his wife, Vera, was dictating orders. He had reviewed Dillon's file briefly the day before and vaguely remembered that he had recently moved to Los Angeles from Washington State where he worked in some small town station for several years. Cole seemed a little young for having been there that long and first impressions made him more of a military man to Vinny than a tree-hugger cop. Dillon's precise movements and respectful demeanor just didn't jive with country lawman.
The newcomer wore a tailored navy blue suit and crisp white shirt with a simple gray and navy striped tie. His shoes were high-end lug- soled lace ups, not the standard cop shoe to be sure, which Vinny found to be a smart move. Dressing to impress and not sparing expense when it came to taking care of your feet were two things Vinny appreciated. It was also probably impossible to buy a decent suit off the rack given the man's hulking build.
"OK sport, let's take a look, shall we?" Vinny turned and started to head back into the house when Dillon gently pulled him by the shoulder. "Sir?" Perhaps it would be wise to re-boot." Dillon grabbed two sets
of blue booties from the box and handed one pair to Vinny. "Those two detectives tracked a lot of dirt up here. Better safe than sorry, don't you think?" Vinny looked down at his own feet and realized he still had the old ones on.
"Ah geez! I need coffee." He ripped off the soiled foot covers, took the new pair from Dillon and pulled them on. "Nice catch sport. I appreciate it."
"No problem Sir. I realize it's very early and you are spread thin. I am fully briefed on the situation with Detective Donovan and am looking forward to meeting her. I am also aware that you are expecting you're first child so I'm certain sleep is a rare commodity for you these days. Congratulations by the way, Sir." Dillon's sincerity made Vinny pause.
"Thanks. Thanks a lot sport." So far Vinny was liking candidate number eight. Only time would tell if he would be completely sold on having him as his replacement as Lou's partner. He really hoped so. Vinny was running out of options.
They started inside, going through each room meticulously but finding absolutely nothing. Aside from the hardware and fixtures, each room was barren and sparkling clean. Aside from the small holes in the walls where they assumed art and pictures once hung, the house itself looked as though no one had ever moved in.. It was a hollow shell that smelled of decomp and cleaning solvent. When the two finally headed outside, Vinny set their path from the far left of the property and they began a spiral sweep of the grounds. Scanning with their flashlights, Vinny couldn't help but notice that Dillon was lagging a bit, fondling, sniffing and sometimes even tasting leaves and branches. When he saw Dillon get down on all fours, sniff the grass then actually pluck a blade and eat it, Vinny simply couldn't take it any longer.
"Are you some sort of freaky raw food vegan or something?" It was all Vinny could think of given Dillon had just come from up north, a notoriously earthy region often known for its extreme environmentalism and beyond organic eating habits.
Dillon looked up at him, slightly confused. "What?" When it occurred to him how his behavior appeared, Dillon flustered and got up quickly, dusting himself off. "Oh! No! Sorry, I was just..."
"You realize you've been grazing through this place?" Vinny cocked his head, baffled. "You got a theory or you just hungry?"
"No sir, I'm a normal carnivore." Dillon suddenly felt ridiculous. "I've just been noticing a few things and was checking them out. A theory, but I'm not sure how far fetched it is just yet."
"You gonna share any time soon or do I just keep thinkin you're some special kind of fruit cup?" Vinny asked with a smirk.
Dillon snorted despite his mortification. "I'd rather wait until we are finished and I have more data before I give you just wild speculation. If you don't mind, sir?"
Vinny shook his head as he turned to continue their sweep. He could only imagine what Lou would be saying if she was there to witness Dillon's bizarre behavior. "Just don't start eatin' bugs. I dunno if I could handle that."
Dillon chided himself silently for his lack of composure. He had been trained better than that. First impressions were critical and he had planned to conduct himself in a far different manner. The problem was that he had not expected to spot evidence of what looked to be quite an elaborate operation at his first crime scene with Vinny. Dillon's gut was screaming at him but too much was riding on this case. How he handled himself would dictate his fate and the stakes were too high for him to rely solely on his gut. He was going to need hard data to back it up before he uttered one word out loud.
The two men continued to search the grounds and despite the odd exchange earlier, things seemed to fall into a solid rhythm. As they worked their way through the grounds and were given short briefings from the various investigators and techs they met up with as they went. When they finally finished their full spiral and were about to head back out to the front of the property, Caroline appeared out of nowhere holding a tray with three large paper mugs baring the colorful logo of a local coffee joint Vinny loved.
"Hey there fellas. Thought you could use a little juice to keep ya going. I had one of my interns make a run." Caroline beamed a smile so bright at Dillon that Vinny almost had to squint. "And who might you be?" Her southern drawl sounded thicker then usual.
This time it was Vinny who rolled his eyes. "Caroline, this is Detective Dillon Cole, contestant number eight. Dillon, this is Deputy Medical Examiner, Caroline Devereux."
"Ohhh! Well hello!" Caroline was not exactly subtle when it came to the male persuasion and this was absolutely no exception. She offered him her hand in true debutant fashion.
"Candidate number eight?" Dillon looked at Vinny with confusion then caught himself. "Ma'am, forgive me." His West Point training kicked in immediately. He took her hand and bowed slightly at the waist. "It's a pleasure."
"It certainly will be." She hadn't meant to say it aloud but she wasn't about to apologize.
"Aw geez Caroline! The kid just got here!" Vinny yanked the tray of
coffee from Caroline's other hand. "Which one is mine?"
"The one with the giant red "V" on it, Sherlock." Caroline slowly retracted her hand and gathered her composure. Candidate number eight definitely had her vote and she was going to call Lou and tell her so as soon as it was a respectable hour. "Here, let me." She pulled Vinny's coffee from the tray and handed it off to him then passed one to Dillon. "Cream and two sugars. Light and sweet, just like me." She smirked as she sipped from her cup. "I hope that's OK."
"Oh for cripe's sake." Vinny yanked the tray out of Caroline's hand and swatted her over the head with it. "Hey Doc, mind putting that engine in neutral and getting back to the case a minute? I mean I appreciate the coffee and all but, seriously? The words 'sexual harassment' mean anything to you?"
"You are such a killjoy. I hope that kid of yours doesn't turn out to be a girl or her life is gonna suck." Caroline stuck her tongue out at him. "Hey!" Vinny took a step toward her. "That's hittin' below the belt!"
"If the shoe fits!" She took a step towards him and stuck out her chin in an act of defiance.
"Uh, excuse me..." Dillon stepped between them. "Can someone clarify the 'candidate number eight' thing for me? I wasn't briefed on that." Caroline and Vinny looked at him then looked at each other with obvious embarrassment.
"It's nothing, sport." Vinny composed himself quickly. "Just a little humor between pals is all."
"Right, sorry. Just a little joke." Caroline smoothed her hair back and sipped her coffee. "I apologize for my behavior. Sleep deprivation I guess. Getting a little slap happy."
"Nothing to apologize for ma'am." Dillon smiled at her and took a sip of his own coffee.
"Thank you for the coffee ma'am. It's perfect, thank you again."
"Call me Caroline, please. Ma'am is my mother." She grunted. "And you're welcome."
The sound of morning birdsongs was growing along with the light of
day and the majesty of the estate's grounds were coming into full view. They were standing at the far side of the yard, on a sprawling patio area that butted up to a massive rectangular pool. On the furthest side of the pool was an infinity fall that made the water look like it spilled out into the sky.
"So there is absolutely no way anyone could have hauled all the contents of the house out this side." Vinny pulled his focus back on the case and walked around to the infinity edge of the pool to take a good look in the growing light.
"No way that I saw when I was snooping." Caroline said as she followed him and Dillon, to the far edge.
The yard dropped down a mild slope and then into a steep hillside that eventually lead to the massive canyon behind the estate. A dozen steps lead down to where the falls of the pool fell into a trough which rested on another patio below. The far end of the patio dropped off in a steep grade that was swallowed up by the canyon. On the patio were several chaise lounges and a substantial firepit. It was a secluded area set off from the rest of the manicured grounds.
Once you hit the property line, there were hundreds of acres of nature between where they stood and anything else. The nearest road was miles away and the terrain was thick with sumac, old oaks, boulders and chaparral. There would most certainly be a trail had anyone tried dragging anything through the canyon this way. Driving any sort of vehicle through the dense vegetation was simply impossible without leaving a visible trail.
"No one came this way." Vinny was certain. "If no trucks came to haul the stuff away, it was either air-lifted or vanished into thin air." He turned to head back towards the house. "I'll make Barnes and Rochelle go over the security footage for this whole community for the past month." Caroline snorted. "That's gonna score you major love from those two."
"You say that like I care." Vinny tried to hide a grin.
"I can go over it if you prefer, Sir." Dillon volunteered.
"Hell no." Vinny waved him off. "We got more important things to do. I'll let those two have the fun stuff."
Dillon seamed confused for a moment but Caroline took the liberty of informing him that they didn't much care for the two detectives and that the detectives surely didn't care much for them. He nodded in understanding and quietly grinned, making Caroline even more certain that she liked the guy.
As the three walked along the east side of the property towards the front yard, Vinny was stopped by a uniformed deputy who quietly relayed something to him as he handed him a slip of paper.
"Crap." Vinny dragged his fingers through his hair and blew out a breath.
"What's wrong?" Caroline looked at him with concern.
"The neighbor across the street." Vinny turned and looked at Caroline, clearly not happy. "Jane and Matt Michaels. Jane is demanding to speak to me, and only me. She's giving the deputies a hard time with the canvas." "Shevaun's Jane?" Caroline blinked several times as recognition
"The one and only. I got it Lopez, thanks." Vinny handed the paper back to the deputy and continued on to the front yard.
"These people are significant, I take it?" Dillon asked, following after
Vinny, taking notes as he walked.
"Lou, Detective Donovan, you know?" Caroline asked to make sure he knew who she was talking about.
"Of course, ma'am..." Dillon caught himself. "I mean, Caroline." "Right, well, Jane Michaels is her mother's BFF" She watched his
face carefully to make sure he understood. "If you know even a tiny bit of Lou's reputation, you need to bare in mind that apples do not fall far from trees. Shevaun and her posse fancy themselves as detectives and are no pushovers. Once they get their teeth into something, they don't let go until they have what they want."
"They aren't that bad! Lou is much worse." Vinny insisted. "But she's right, Jane isn't going to just sit by and watch. Want to start a pool right now on what time I get a call from Lou and Shevaun?"
"Oh!" Caroline swatted Dillon's arm. "Take this down! I got a hundred on Shevaun calling at eight. No later then that. I'll put another hundred on Lou calling by no later than nine." Dillon was not sure if she was joking or not.
"Write it down, sport. I got a hundred on Shevaun at eight-thirty and Lou at ten." Vinny retrieved his wallet from his pocket, pulled out a hundred dollar bill and handed it to Dillon. "You hold the cash. I'll hit the ATM on my way out for the other hundred." He looked pointedly at Caroline. "Cough it up Doc."
Caroline feigned a look of insult that lasted about two seconds. "Oh fine! Be right back. My wallet is in the truck." She split off from them and ran down the street.
"Sir?" Dillon paused when they hit the curb. "Yeah?" Vinny stopped and turned towards him.
"Are we seriously starting a pool on when your partner and her mother
call about this case?" Dillon was still unsure if he was seriously supposed to be writing this down.
"Hell yes we are. I suggest you get in on it too. I'll initial you're bet for you." Vinny turned and continued to cross the street. Dillon shrugged and decided to split the difference, taking eight-fifteen and nine-thirty.
Jane Michaels was an extremely stylish and savvy woman who obviously took her yoga seriously as evidenced by the shape she was in. She met Vinny and Dillon at the door, not giving them the opportunity to knock. It was barely past 7 a.m. but Jane was perfectly polished in a pricey looking cream colored sweater dress and her sunny blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. The clear giveaway to her down to earth attitude were the enormously fluffy scrunched socks she wore in a screaming bright pink. Vinny had known Jane for as long as she had known Lou's family. Jane and Lou's mother had gone to high school together and been the best of friends since. He often considered her more Shevaun's sister with how close the two women were.
"Vinny!" Jane gushed as she give him a huge hug. "How are you? How is Vera? I cannot wait until the baby shower!" She turned her sights on Dillon with a clear note of suspicion. "Who are you?"
"Good to see you Jane. This is Detective Dillon Cole..." Before he could finish she sidled up to the poor, unwitting newbie and gave him a not so subtle once over.
"A candidate for your replacement?" She squinted as she looked him dead in the eyes.
"Yeah, this is his first day so..." She cut Vinny off again.
"You have some serious shoes to fill mister." She was not being mean or malicious in any way, just matter of fact and it made Vinny smile. "What makes you think you can handle it?"
"Ma'am, it's an honor to meet you. I don't think anyone could fill Detective DeLuca's shoes, ma'am." Dillon swallowed hard and stood tall, scoring another point in Vinny's book. "I only hope I have the opportunity to try."
Jane squinted a bit harder at him, contemplating for several moments. "Good answer cutie. Nice to meet ya! Now let's get you boys some coffee and we can get to all the juicy stuff across the street." She turned on her heals and headed into the house, waving for the men to follow. "Close the door for me! I don't want the dogs to wander out if they decide to wake up."
Dillon looked at Vinny for some sign that he had done alright but only caught Vinny shaking his head and chuckling before he walked inside.
The Michaels' home was plush and opulent but warm and homey at the same time. Despite it being at least ten times the size of Vinny's, there was nothing stuffy or pretentious about it. When they reached the kitchen, Vinny figured he could park both his sedan and Vera's new minivan in the space the island alone occupied. When he finally spotted Jane in the corner of the kitchen, he almost fainted when he saw what she was working with. Vinny was a coffee snob and coveted Lou's parent's Belle Époque espresso machine. He had been known to disappear during family gatherings just to polish the thing. Here, however, was a new obsession of his and he had a half a dozen brochures at home for that "one day" when he would splurge.
"Is that a La Pavoni?" Vinny almost couldn't get the name out.
"It sure is!" She looked over her shoulder and grinned at him. "Oh I
forgot! You are a barista at heart, isn't that right?"
"I have a picture of that very machine taped to my fridge at home." He walked toward it, slowly, reverently.
"Well here, you make the coffee then. Get some training in." She smiled and moved out of the way to let Vinny play and leaned against the counter watching his childlike enthusiasm. "The company is on of my husband's clients. The V.P. gave me that as a thank you for babysitting his Pomeranian while he went on vacation. I should see if Matthew can snatch one up for you."
Vinny's head spun around so fast it was amazing he didn't give himself whiplash. "Seriously?"
"Couldn't hurt to try! You're going to need all the good coffee you can get once the baby arrives. I bet Mathew has three of those sitting around at the office somewhere." She grinned as Vinny began humming a cheery tune as he proceeded to steam some milk. Turning her attention to Dillon she realized he was a little lost in the conversation. "My husband is an international corporate lawyer. His firm has clients all over the world and they are always giving him nice things, like the espresso machine. We are very lucky." She walked to the far side of the kitchen island and pulled out two stools. "Here, have a seat!"
"Thank you ma'am." Dillon perched himself on the stool and continued to observe Vinny with fascination. It was like watching a kid with a brand new toy. "Lucky perhaps, but he is obviously very good at what he does for his clients to give him such gifts."
"That's true too." Her grin was directed at him now. "Please, call me
"Alright, here we go!" Vinny placed their cups in front of them. "I am sure Caroline will be here in a second so if you don't mind, I'll make her one too?"
"I thought I saw her out there! Definitely make her some too. That's usually the first place she hits when she visits." Jane scooped a small spoonful of sugar from a bowl on the island and stirred it diligently into her coffee. "Help yourself now, Dillon. It's raw sugar though, I'm on a weird kick with raw and organic this month. Vinny and Caroline will tell you I am always doing some weird fad thing."
"Last month it was no white foods, wasn't it?" Caroline asked, startling them as she came in from the hall.
"Put a bell on you! You scared the life out of me!" Jane swatted Caroline's shoulder as she came to give her a kiss on her cheek. "Yes, last month was no white."
"Sorry! Kinda weird you getting spooked with Captain America and the Godfather in your kitchen." Caroline winked at Dillon then hopped up on a stool at the other end of the island just as Vinny placed a cup in front of her. "Thank you Papa."
"You're welcome." Vinny smiled and tugged on her ponytail then sat
down next to her with his own cup. "OK, we need to get serious here."
Dillon pulled his notebook from his jacket and set his pen to the ready. For a brief moment he had completely forgotten the purpose for their being at Jane Michaels' home. He had been enjoying the casual, familiar banter and the warm atmosphere. It had been a long time since he had felt quite so comfortable.
"Oh yeah, right!" Jane grimaced. "OK so tell me everything! What's going on over there?"
"Jane!" Vinny and Caroline blurted in unison, making Dillon grin. "Oh come on! It's me! You know I am going to find out anyway!" She
sipped her coffee with a sheepish grin.
"Jane, you know damn well we cannot discuss an ongoing investigation." Dillon wasn't sure if Vinny was admonishing Jane or reminding himself. "Now, tell us what you can about your neighbor across the street."
"Fine, play it that way. We'll see how long that lasts." Jane looked at Vinny, then Caroline, with a knowing smile then sipped her coffee once more before she began.
Approximately forty-five minutes later Dillon was certain he was on his last sheet of paper. Jane had relayed every detail she could think of about her neighbor across the street, Casius Arcano. It was quite remarkable to Dillon that she was so observant and her recollection of details was excellent. She was able to tell them that Arcano was the son of a very wealthy coffee baron from Colombia and that his father had recently passed away. Shoring up all the family's business connections in the U.S. had been the reason for Arcano's short term residency but that he had clearly stated to Jane he was planning to stay for at least the remainder of the year.
Jane had also told them that he entertained frequently and she and her husband were always invited to Arcano's parties. They had been at one last weekend and she was able to recall a good number of names for the guests in attendance. She also recalled him inviting them to a party he was planning for Memorial Day which lead them even further to the conclusion that Arcano hadn't been planning to move. As for romantic interest, Jane had to admit that she was beginning to think Arcano was not interested in women since she had never seen him with a woman that she could recall. Further stoking her suspicion was the fact that he gushed and fawned over his West Highland Terrier, Luna. This and other little things made her suspect Arcano was gay.
"Oh dear God! Where is Luna?" Jane shouted, realizing that the dog was missing just like everything else in that house. "If one of those bodies is Casius, then someone took Luna. He never ever let that dog out of his sight!"
"We don't know if he's one of the bodies, Jane." Caroline reassured her. "I am sure the dog is fine. They will find out, don't worry." Jane calmed a bit but Dillon could see her genuine concern. "I need to get back to work." Caroline sighed. "I've given them enough time to get back to the shop and harvest all the bugs. Thank you for the hospitality Jane. This was a nice change of pace." She hopped off her stool and put her cup in the dishwasher before she gave Jane a kiss goodbye. "See you boys later. Oh!" Caroline looked at her watch and grunted, then pulled two one hundred dollars from her pocket and slapped them into Dillon's hand. "There, I know I lost already." With that, she waved to them, then headed out.
"Lost what?" Jane inquired and Dillon looked to Vinny for assistance. He couldn't think of an answer that wouldn't insult the woman.
"Oh we had a pool going on how long things would take at the scene. Just silliness to pass the time." Vinny gave Dillon a knowing glance. "We need to head out too." Vinny followed Caroline's example, picking up Dillon's cup as well then putting their dishes into the dishwasher. "Thanks for all your help Jane. We'll be in touch if we have any more questions." He gave her a kiss on the cheek then headed for the door.
"It was a pleasure Mrs. Michaels. I hope we meet again." Dillon shook her hand gently and smiled.
"I have a feeling we will. I have a good feeling about it." She squeezed his hand before she let go and gave him a wink. "When you meet her, don't take her shit. Hear me?"
Dillon almost laughed out. "I'll try not too, ma'am."
"Good luck with that." Vinny shouted from down the hall. "Come on sport. It's gonna be a long day."
The men left the Michaels' home and ran into Rochelle and Barnes while crossing the street. Barnes gave them a five minute recap, bringing Vinny up to speed on things that Dillon suspected he already knew. So far they had found no trace of any sort other than what they expected to be cleaning products inside the home. The only footprints or traces within the house were from the deputies themselves from when they entered the premises. Everything else was going to take time to properly process. The forensics, the video, the security logs, all of it was going to take time.
After Vinny dismissed Rochelle and Barnes, he directed Dillon to follow him to his car. As if on cue, Vinny's cell phone rang and Dillon couldn't resist looking at his watch. It was 8:16 a.m. on the dot. He grinned.
"Don't get happy yet. It could be the captain." Vinny squinted at the screen on his phone then muttered something under his breath. "Beginner's luck..." He scoffed at Dillon then answered the phone. "Good morning Shevaun. What can I do for you?"
Dillon covered his mouth, trying not to laugh out loud. He gave Vinny space and walked to the driveway of their perplexing crime scene. It struck him all of the sudden that he had been there for less than two hours and other than taking more notes then he had taken since he left West Point, the morning had been more enjoyable than he had ever expected. He admired Vinny's loyalty and work ethic. Caroline was far sassier than he was prepared for. Rochelle was going to be a problem for him if she got in his face. He was a gentleman always, the highest respect for women. However, if she got in his face, he had no problem getting in hers. He had now met Lou's partner, her best friend and her mother's best friend. It was not difficult to like them all very much and enjoy the rapport they all had with each other. Dillon expected that Lou would fall in with all those personalities but he really had no clue what to expect when and if he finally met her. He had read her file a dozen times preparing for this gig, just as he had read Vinny and Caroline's. It was all just words on paper when you came down to it. What really mattered was how they got along and how they worked together as a team. Dillon reminded himself that he wasn't interviewing to be Vinny or Caroline's partner, they were essentially the gatekeepers. Lou was the target.
"OK, so you won the first round." Vinny suddenly appeared beside Dillon. "We still got time before the second. So tell me what you think we got here."
"Alright." Dillon didn't take out his notebook to review, he knew everything by heart already. "None of the three victims are going to turn out to be Arcano. We will need to dig into his business but I am willing to bet that those three were a message. Not sure if that message is for Arcano or for someone else connected to him. They were most definitely killed where the killer or killers left them but there was one serious clean-up and I really am not sure why they went to such an extreme. I think it's safe to assume that Arcano, his dog and all his stuff was removed from here before those boys in there showed up. Maybe they were part of the crew that cleared the place out? Loose ends that were tied up on the spot?" He paused to organize his thoughts a moment.
"Jane says she saw Arcano in his doorway Friday morning when she walked her dogs. He waved, she saw a giant floral arrangement behind him on a table approximately where our John Does were laid out." Vinny tossed some of the info they gleaned from Jane at him. "That means that house was being lived in like normal, with furniture and dog up until at least then."
"Right. I'm guessing the table was centered under the chandelier so that was taken out before the bodies were left. The blood pool is pristine. No voids or any smearing that I could see." Dillon and Vinny were on the same page so far. "About the furniture being cleared out though..." Dillon was a little hesitant to give Vinny his theory but he figured he may as well start tossing it out in piec