COLD January 2033 air mixed with a warm Caribbean breeze, settling into a nighttime fog thick enough to dull a knife. Jackson Cole stood in deeper shadows, watching as three young women staggered, giggling, from one of the bars in the historic district of St. Augustine, Florida. Jackson’s thoughts floated loose in the swirling mist. The harder he worked them into a coherent whole, the further they slipped away until the giggles snapped him back to the present. The trio passed under a streetlight on the far side of the street. Its anemic glow caught the tight strawberry blond curls that almost reached the shoulders of the noisiest of the three.
Jackson focused on her. She stiffened, as though she could feel his gaze through the murk separating them. She turned and stared in his direction, though he was certain he was hidden from view. Her companions stopped and gaped at her, their confusion plain from their body language even at this distance. Then, the young woman marched across the street to where Jackson stood and faced him with eyes as glassy as new marbles.
Jackson forgot to breathe.
“Hey, dickhead,” she said, the slurred words pulling her lips into a loose grin, “Seen enough? Watch this.” Lisa Davis grabbed the front hem of her baggy sweatshirt and pulled it over her head to expose small, braless breasts with silver nipple rings. Her flat abdomen sported a simple stone dangling at the end of a navel stud.
Jackson retreated a half step deeper into the shadows as drunken laughter spilled through the cloth. She returned the sweatshirt, spun and trotted back to her friends. She repeated the gesture for her girlfriends who joined her laughter. The three continued on, laughing and bumping into one another as they faded into the swirling mist.
Jackson’s rambling thoughts coalesced into a childhood memory of his older sister, Sandy. She was nine. He was five. She stood admiring her newly forming breasts in front of her mirror until she noticed him standing quietly at the door to her room, hoping she would come outside and play with him. Instead, her face grew red and clouded. She ran screaming to their mother, who dragged Jackson by the arm to the closet, where he cried himself to sleep, again.
The memory collapsed under the weight of an avalanche of emotions he’d suppressed for decades. The adult Jackson Cole stepped out of the footpath behind the art gallery and turned to follow the laughter in the dark.
Nicole moved against Carter in bed. She was burrowed under the duvet, the bedroom window open a crack. The night air lowered the room’s temperature to a chilly sixty degrees. She rose toward consciousness just enough to feel the delicious little leftover tingle from their earlier lovemaking, a satisfied smile creeping onto her lips. His arm found its way over her and she brought it around, snuggling deeper into his embrace.
Her smartwatch beeped. She stirred and moved her hand between the sheets beside her. They were empty. She rolled onto her back and sat up. He was already awake, standing at the dresser in the dark, checking his iLink. He grumbled, pulled the covers back, and dropped onto the bed, scooping her up and dragging her on top of him.
“Hey, you,” he whispered, tightening his arms around her waist.
“Hey, you,” she responded and lay her head on his chest. “Duty calls.” She hated to move from the warmth of the bed and his embrace.
“Not so fast.” He nuzzled into her neck, and blew a raspberry.
She shrieked and squirmed. He held her tight while they rolled laughing across the bed, taking the sheets and bedspread with them. He flipped her onto her back. “Give?”
His hands were pinned under her. She worked her fingers around under his arms, where she knew his ticklish spot was and locked her legs around his waist.
He tried to pull off her in jerking, laughing spasms. She followed him over, straddling him. She pressed her elbows down on his chest and whispered, “That the best you got, paper boy?”
“You win,” he said.
She dropped onto the bed next to him.
They lay panting, catching their breath as the laughter wound down.
“Jerk.” She tapped her fist on his chest, crawled over him, and grabbed her smartwatch from the headboard. She touched an icon on the screen.
“Dispatch to Piricelli, Detective Nicole.”
“Open link, audio only. This is Piricelli. Go ahead, Dispatch.”
A familiar male voice responded. “Good morning, Detective. Detective Malone requested you be informed he’s on his way to pick you up. You have a case. Uniformed officer on scene.”
“Message received. How’s everything, Tom?”
“Good. We just closed on the new house. We’re really excited to move in. You?”
“We’re good, Tom.” She took Carter’s hand in hers. “Congratulations on the house.”
“Thanks. He said he’ll pick you up in twenty.”
Nicole disconnected, leaned in, and pecked a quick kiss on Carter’s cheek before rolling away. As she’d suspected, she and Malone had caught a case.
“Lay still. I have to go.” She stood and moved through the dark toward the master bathroom, pressing the app icon to send the message that she was up and would be ready when Malone arrived.
“Can’t,” Carter said in response. “Mine went off, too.” He rolled off the bed and padded back to the dresser to retrieve his slightly larger, more powerful mini-tablet.
Nicole switched the bathroom light on and stood in the doorway for a moment and stood, watching him at the dresser, back to her, reading the message on his tablet. The light bathed his six-foot-one frame in a soft glow and she smiled, admiring his exceptional ass for a moment before heading into the bathroom.
Carter glanced at her over his shoulder. “Can you please hand me my toothbrush before you get too busy? I’ll use the other bathroom.”
She grabbed his toothbrush from where it rested next to hers by the sink. “Story?” she asked as she handed it to him.
He grinned as he took it. “There’s always another story.” He hesitated for a second.
“Can I drop you somewhere? You want a ride or anything?” He grinned at her.
She rolled her eyes in response. “Funny guy. No, thanks. Malone’ll be here in twenty minutes. You know how he is about…” she let the thought trail. No use whipping a dead cow.
Carter shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “Reporters and cops mix like crooks and cops mix. I’m just glad he holds my profession in such high regard.”
She blew out a breath. “It isn’t that. It’s—”
“I’m a pain in the neck?” He smiled at her the way he did when he knew he was turning her crank.
“Yeah, there’s that.” She got serious for a second. “Be safe out there.”
He rounded the bed to where she stood and brushed his lips against her forehead. “You too.” Then he turned and headed toward the second bathroom.
Nicole hooked the light switch with a finger, started the shower, and grabbed her own toothbrush. She twisted and turned, checking her reflection for any imperfections and finding every one. Still in good shape, though, she thought. She leaned in close, checking her shoulder-length black curls for the first silver strand. Finding none, she moved her attention to the corners of her hazel eyes and scowled at the faint hint of a line or two forming there.
Her gaze drifted to her left eyebrow and lingered on the scar that followed its contour. The last quarter inch turned up onto her forehead. She pulled the skin of her left cheek tight, finding the faint scar where the plastic surgeon had reconstructed her cheekbone. The feeling in that area would never fully return, and her left lid still drooped a little. She switched hands with her toothbrush and looked straight on at her reflection, still pleased at how straight the surgeon had gotten her nose after the injury.
She rinsed and spit and wiped her face with a towel. “Not bad, girl. Shoulda seen the other guy.”
Ten minutes later, Nicole stepped out of the bathroom to an empty house. The bed was made. Before he left, Carter had switched on the small bedroom wall sconce. She quickly dressed and walked into the kitchen to find her go-cup on the counter filled with hot coffee. Under it was a piece of paper with a hand-drawn smiley face framed in squiggly lines on either side meant to be her hair. Under the smiley, Carter’s scrawl read, “Good hunting.” She smiled.
Nicole locked her front door via its biometric reader and stood on the front porch. She zipped her leather motorcycle jacket up against the chill. When headlights turned the corner toward her house, she stepped into the misty night as the car braked to a stop. Halos formed around the headlights and fog swirled around her legs as she stepped through the beams to the passenger side of the plain wrap Crown Vic hybrid and tugged the door open. Dropping into the seat, she put her go-cup in the empty console cup holder and slouched. “S’up?”
Malone grunted. “We have a probable homicide at Eighty-eight Park Place, just south of the historic district. The vic is a twenty-two year old female.” He checked the car’s dash screen. “Name’s Lisa Davis. Her upstairs neighbor called it in. There’s a city uniform on site. He confirms a crime against person and handed it off to us.”
An agreement had unified the municipal police departments and the county sheriff’s departments throughout the state a decade before. The county investigated violent crimes, crimes involving firearms regardless of jurisdiction, and crimes outside city limits, while local police continued to investigate non-violent crimes and routine patrol duties inside city limits. This allowed the county to maintain forensics, crime labs and the Medical Examiner’s Office, freeing the individual cities to concentrate their budgets on better staffing and equipment.
He glanced toward Nicole’s house and the empty driveway as they pulled away. “No Porsche?”
“He had to work.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but—”
Nicole turned her head to her partner. “Then don’t.” She did a quick survey of the car’s dimly-lit interior. “There any doughnuts?”
He grunted again. “Mary catches me with an empty doughnut bag in this car again, I’m a dead man, Piricelli.”
She leaned against the seat. “Hey, there’s a great idea. I could plant some evidence, take a couple of pictures, and start blackmailing you by this afternoon.”
The look Malone gave her did not convey amusement. “That’d be funny if I didn’t think you were serious.”
“Then back off Carter. He’s not the enemy.”
The noise Malone made could’ve passed for a bear’s, disturbed half way through its winter nap. When he yawned, his two hundred and forty pounds hanging on a six-foot-two-inch frame completed the picture. They rode in silence for a minute, watching the low-beams tunnel into the fog. “Okay,” he said. “New game plan.”
Unsure where his comment was headed, Nicole waited.
He cleared his throat. “This is from the Captain. You’re lead on this one. I’m supposed to monitor your progress, lend assistance as needed, and generally keep quiet unless you ask for help.
She straightened in her seat. “The results came back?” She referred to the Detective-2 test she had taken four days ago. This evaluation was the next step, where her senior partner and trainer observed her technique and reported back to the Board through their Captain.
Malone shook his head. “Not yet. Captain wants to get his ducks in a row, though, for when the results come out.” He glanced her way. “You’re gonna pass, Piricelli. Only question is, by how much.”
It was Nicole’s turn to grunt. She was pretty sure she had not only passed the test, but slam-dunked it. She’d gone from the testing center and looked up every question she could remember, and she’d answered each one correctly, but she’d allowed herself to get so stressed over the thing, she barely remembered her own name by the time she was done. And it was easy to misread or overthink questions. It was how most people failed. Still, she didn’t want to jinx it by being cocky.
“It would mean a lot to Angelo,” she said.
“Angelo doesn’t give a rat’s backside about any test. Your grandfather just wants you to be good at whatever you do. And kid, you are good at this.”
“Fog’s thicker than tomato soup,” Nicole said, to change the subject. Malone wheeled the car into the historic district’s narrow streets. This close to the river, the visibility cleared from under a dozen feet to thirty or forty. He turned up the volume on the car’s GPS.
“You mean pea soup,” he said, his brow creasing.
The GPS software broke in, “Please turn left at the next cross street, then in two blocks, turn right, and you have arrived at your destination.”
“You eat what you like, I’ll eat what I like,” she said, leaning forward to peer out the windshield as they turned left.
Flashing blue and white strobe lights caught Nicole’s attention. In the fog, the patrol car looked like a mother ship from a UFO movie. Carter was already at the scene, off to one side, a respectful distance outside the yellow crime-scene tape.
“Crap,” Malone mumbled.
They rolled to a stop behind the city police car, climbed out, and approached the uniform on scene. The fog cleared a little as they approached the duplex.
Nicole narrowed her eyes at him. “He knew before I did. Some kind of thing he does with his tablet.”
The dwelling was a two-story frame construction. The first and second floors were separated into apartments. Nicole guessed the building’s age at about ten or fifteen years old, the siding was neutral gray, and decorative white shutters hung at the sides of the windows. One of the downstairs windows was missing a pane of glass. A young St. Augustine Police Officer stood on the concrete walk at the property line. His hands were clasped behind him and his feet shoulder width apart. Nicole approached, extending her left arm, the hand-sized holographic projection of her gold star floated about a foot away.
“Detectives Piricelli and Malone,” she said.
The officer came to attention and saluted. “Patrolman Drake.” He held out a tablet the size and weight of a clipboard. Where a clipboard’s clamp would have been, the tablet held a biometric thumbprint scanner.
They signed and thumbprinted the crime-scene logbook while Drake gave them the rundown. “I was called to the scene an hour ago,” he started, “at oh-one-forty-five. The neighbor from the upstairs apartment, Ms. Brandi Williams, aged forty-three, was sitting on the steps, pretty shook up.”
He nodded in the direction of his car, fifteen feet away, where a middle-aged woman sat sideways, rocking gently, legs hanging out the open door. Her pink fuzzy robe was pulled tight to the neck and her eyes stared into the distance, focused on nothing. Nicole had seen that stare too often as the collateral damage of violent crime.
“Ms. Williams informed me she was awakened by the sound of glass breaking from the apartment downstairs and became concerned. She dressed, came downstairs, and knocked on her neighbor’s door. Victim’s name is Lisa Davis. Ms. Williams knocked several times, becoming increasingly concerned when no one answered. She has a key the victim gave her a few months ago when she was away, visiting her parents, which she returned upstairs to retrieve. When she entered the apartment, she found the vic’s body and called it in. Forensics is on its way, and my backup is at the rear of the building.” Drake shifted his stance. “Be careful on the way in. She managed to make it to the steps, but not all the way to the grass before she yacked.”
Malone inclined his head to Nicole.
“Thanks Officer Drake,” Nicole said. “You stay here and maintain the scene and logbook.” She indicated the woman in the patrol car with a flick of her head. “Detective Malone, you start the interview with Ms. Williams while I do an on-sight prelim check. Officer, please move the crime-scene tape to include the street in front of the house and the sidewalk beyond.” It was always easier to reduce the size of the crime-scene later, but once the media rolled in, it would be impossible to extend it. This would also keep them off the street directly in front of the house.
Drake nodded once and hooked a thumb under the tape for Nicole while Malone moved toward the squad car where the neighbor sat. Nicole stood for a couple of beats before making the short walk to the front door. Every good detective had some ritual for clearing the mind on the way to a new crime-scene. Hers involved a deep breath, closing her eyes and reaching out with her senses. She became acutely aware of Malone walking to the curb, Drake moving to speak to Carter, and Carter’s quiet greeting to Drake. When she could almost feel the night through the hairs on her skin, she was ready. She opened her eyes and let her gaze wander over the Victorian-style duplex’s exterior. A small closed-circuit camera caught her attention, nestled in the shadows under an eve and pointed in the direction of the entrance.
Nicole stepped around the puddle on the steps, through the front door, and stopped at the open doorway leading into the first-floor apartment. She caught he first faint whiff of blood mixed with other body fluids. The scent was sour-sweet and coppery at the same time, like holding a penny on her tongue and sniffing a zip-top bag of meat left out too long. She slipped paper booties on and gloved up. Then she tugged the elastic band containing the camera of her crime-scene video recorder over her head and switched the equipment on. Then she drew a deep breath and entered the apartment.
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