The Texas Murder Files Series · Book five
Two homicide detectives must separate the puzzling truth from a growing web of lies while investigating a murder victim’s friends and lovers in Lost Beach, Texas.
Detective Nicole Lawson is fed up with her job and nonexistent love life. Her first date in months gets cut short by an urgent call from the chief of police. A body has been discovered at Lighthouse Point, and the medical examiner finds an array of strange clues. When the death is ruled a homicide, the news quickly reverberates through Nicole’s beachside hometown.
The Lost Beach police department swings into high gear. Leading the investigation is Emmet Davis, a veteran detective who is Nicole’s fiercest rival at work and also the man she has secretly harbored feelings toward for years. With Emmet calling the shots, Nicole sets out to search for leads, starting with the enigmatic yoga instructor who first discovered the body. Nicole is certain the witness knows more than she’s revealing and may even hold the key to unlocking the case.
When another person turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Nicole sees a bizarre pattern, but no one believes her theory. Under the gun to solve the case, Nicole must put aside her tumultuous feelings and work closely with Emmet to figure out who is targeting her beloved hometown . . . before she becomes a target herself.
The Texas Murder Files Series · Book five
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The beach was deserted again.
On sunny days it was the good sort of deserted, empty and peaceful like a postcard. But today’s sky was cold and colorless, and the beach just felt bleak. The wind nipped at Cassandra’s cheeks, and she wished she hadn’t come.
Focus on the breathing, not the pain.
She set her gaze on the foamy waterline and tried to get in the zone. The tip of her nose felt frozen, and her knuckles were numb as she pumped her arms.
Almost there. Just a little more.
She should be used to this by now. She’d been coming here for months on her evenings off. The route to the lighthouse from her apartment was a perfect two-mile loop that was both scenic and invigorating.
Her mind shifted to the stress that had prompted her to come out here and freeze her butt off when what she really wanted to do was pour a fat glass of wine. Today had been crazy, even for a Saturday. Her classes had been filled to capacity, and then she’d had to pick up two classes for Reese, who was out sick.
Or so she’d claimed. Reese had a new boyfriend, and Cassandra had her doubts about that excuse. But she’d filled in anyway, without complaint, because she owed Reese a favor.
Pounding out her frustration on the sand, Cassandra focused on the lighthouse. Perched upon a grassy hill, it looked gray and lonely in the waning daylight. During the summer, the lighthouse was packed with people climbing to the top for a panoramic view of the island’s south side. But the visitors’ lot was vacant now, not a tourist in sight.
Up ahead, a little blue car was parked on the beach near the dunes. Cassandra scanned the shoreline for its owner but didn’t see any walkers or wade fisherman. She looked out at the waves.
A low buzzing noise pulled her attention back to the beach. She glanced up, searching for the drone. She couldn’t see it, but the menacing hum told her it was there. She halted and stared up at the sky.
A red-haired boy darted out from a sand dune with an excited black dog bounding behind him. The kid looked up, and Cassandra saw that the noise was a remote-control airplane. The plane did a series of rolls and loops. Then a man joined the boy and took over the controls to bring the plane down for a smooth landing.
Cassandra resumed her run. She focused on her breathing again, sucking in big gulps of air, then blowing them out. Like magic, the anxiety faded, and her limbic system began to settle down.
Just a dad and his kid. Don’t be so paranoid.
The wind whipped up, making her eyes water as she neared the lighthouse. She sprinted the last twenty yards, then stretched her arms above her head and turned around. The boy and his dog were leaving now. The dad loaded them into a pickup truck and walked around to the driver’s side. He made a circle on the beach and disappeared behind the dunes.
Cassandra spied the solitary blue car again. Something about it needled her.
She glanced around. Still no shell seekers or fishermen, and she gazed out at the churning surf. Had someone gone for a swim? It was freezing. But maybe that was the point. Cold water could grab you by the chest and squeeze the breath right out of you. It was terrifying, but exhilarating, too, and she understood the allure.
Even so, this end of the island had a notorious rip current. You’d have to have a death wish to swim out here alone, especially at sundown.
Cassandra veered toward the car, unable to stay away. Jogging toward it, she studied the tinted windows, the dinged door. She caught sight of something hanging from the rearview mirror, and her heart lurched. A dreamcatcher. A small white feather dangled from the hoop.
She jogged straight up to the door and looked through the window. Someone was asleep in the front seat. Long brown hair, pale arms.
Cassandra’s breath caught, and her stomach did a somersault. Panic gripped her as she noticed the flies.
Nicole felt naked.
It wasn’t the minidress or the strappy sandals. It wasn’t even the weird slit that left the entire side of her thigh on display.
It was the Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol—or absence of it—that was making her feel exposed. She was so accustomed to those twenty-nine ounces riding on her hip, and the lack of weight was making her antsy as hell.
She checked her phone, then flipped it over.
Nicole glanced around the restaurant, which was wall-to-wall couples, of course. She’d never been in here before, and the decorations grated on her nerves. They were going for elegant, she knew—this was The Nautilus, after all—and it wasn’t like the place was covered in pink balloons. The blood-red rosebuds on every table looked nice, actually. Ditto the votive candles that emitted a soft glow. Really, it was the glitter that was giving her hives, all those tiny gold hearts sprinkled across her table like pixie dust. Just the sight was making her feel even stupider than she already did in this ridiculous dress.
She checked her phone again.
For the first time ever she had a date on Valentine’s, and not just any date. Tonight was the date. She and David had gone out twice already. The last time had ended with intense kissing in his car, which definitely would have continued if he hadn’t been called into work. Nothing like being summoned to an autopsy to kill the mood.
He wanted to make it up to her, though. Those were his exact words when he’d invited her to this expensive restaurant. And so Nicole had squeezed herself into a low-cut black dress that gave her the illusion of boobs, borrowed her sister’s stilettos, and come here to meet him for dinner.
“Are we still waiting?”
Her server was back again with that pitying look that was almost as annoying as the glitter.
She smiled up at him. “We are.”
“And would you like some wine, perhaps? Maybe a cocktail?”
“I’m good.” She nodded at her half-finished water. “Thanks.”
He walked off, leaving her to her silent phone. No text, no voice message. She’d even checked her email, but zip.
Nicole looked around, sure people were staring at her. God, the white-haired couple behind her was already paying their bill.
Her phone vibrated on the table, and she snatched it up.
“Where the hell are you?”
Not David. She closed her eyes.
“I’m out. Why?”
“Didn’t you get the call?” Emmet asked her, and she pictured him at the police station surrounded by the typical Saturday-night chaos.
“I’m off tonight.”
Her phone beeped with an incoming call, and she checked the screen.
“Listen, that’s Denise. I have to go.” She hung up with Emmet and took the call.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“The chief asked me to reach you. He needs you at a scene.”
Nicole pushed her chair back and grabbed her purse. “Does he know I’m off tonight?”
She unzipped her little black clutch and left a ten on the table. They were going to have to bus it, even though she hadn’t ordered anything.
“Well, what’s going on?”
“One sec,” Denise said and cut over to another call. When things were busy, the Lost Beach PD receptionist doubled as a dispatcher. She was also the chief’s right hand, doing everything from managing his calendar to deflecting reporters who called in from time to time.
The front of the restaurant was packed with waiting couples. Nicole scanned the bar and the area around the hostess stand, but didn’t see any tall, handsome doctors looking around for their date. It was 7:32. She’d officially been stood up.
“I’m here.” She squeezed past the people and pushed open the door. A cold gust hit her, and she stepped back.
“He needs you at Lighthouse Point right away. And keep it off the radio.”
“What’s going on?” she asked again.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“He said, ‘I need Lawson at Lighthouse Point ASAP. Keep it off the radio.’ That’s all I have.”
Nicole hunched her head down, wishing for her jacket as she strode across the parking lot. It had filled in since she’d arrived.
“What’s your ETA?” Denise asked.
“I’ll be there in three.”
Nicole hitched herself behind the wheel of her pickup and started it. Cold air shot from the vents, and she turned the heat to max. She set her purse on the passenger seat and backed out, still looking for David’s black Pathfinder in case he was pulling in late. He wasn’t.
She should shake it off. He had a demanding job, like she did. It was unpredictable. Maybe he got tied up at work and forgot to call.
But really, that only made her feel worse. She’d been looking forward to this all week. She’d planned her outfit, and put on makeup, and spent half an hour straightening her damn hair. This was why she didn’t go out. She hated the BS. She was much happier at home binge-watching TV with her cat.
The lighthouse came into view, and Nicole’s pulse picked up. Three, four, five emergency vehicles—four cruisers, plus a fire truck. No ambulance, which was a worrisome sign. Everyone was parked in the lot, but the action appeared to be centered on the beach where some portable klieg lights had been set up. Nicole whipped into a space beside the fire rig and scanned the crowd as she shifted into park.
She reached into the back and rummaged around. There was a flannel shirt, an LBPD windbreaker, and a rain poncho. No shoes, damn it. She had a pair of waders in the toolbox in back, but the mud boots she normally kept on hand were on her balcony at home, drying after she’d hosed them off.
She grabbed the windbreaker, then unzipped her little back purse and slid out her backup pistol. A tube of lipstick fell out, too, as if to taunt her.
She got out and pulled on the jacket, then tucked the gun into the pocket, along with her badge. Not that she needed her detective’s shield. Even at a glance, she could see she knew everyone out here.
She crossed the parking lot, attempting to look confident, which worked fine until she reached the sandy trail leading to the beach. She considered kicking off the heels and going barefoot, but there might be glass on the beach, plus her sister had threatened her within an inch of her life if anything happened to her precious Jimmy Choos.
“Don’t leave them at his house,” Kate had said. “And if he has a dog, put them up high.”
“I’m not going to end up at his house.”
“Yeah you will.”
“I will not.”
“When he sees you in that? You will, trust me.”
Nicole strode across the sand to the group of men milling in the shadows near the klieg lights. A perimeter had been cordoned off around a small blue Subaru. The only person inside the yellow scene tape appeared to be their CSI, who wore a white Tyvek suit and a purple facemask. Miranda was just back from maternity leave and no doubt had plenty of things she’d rather be doing on a Saturday night. She crouched beside the car’s passenger door and snapped a photograph.
Nicole headed for the cluster of first responders. Adam McDeere saw her and did a double take.
“Whoa.” He looked her up and down and seemed to get stuck on her cleavage. “Where were you?”
“Out. What’s going on?”
He cleared his throat, still distracted. “We got an OD. A jogger called it in ’bout hour ago.”
Nicole looked at the car. “Where’s the ME’s team?”
“They came and went. It was pretty straightforward. No blood.”
“Is it a suicide?”
He raked a hand over his buzzcut. “No note or anything. But who knows?”
She glanced up, and Brady was waving her over. She went to talk to him, and his brow furrowed as he looked her over.
“What do we have, Chief?”
“Drug OD,” he said. “There’s a bottle of pills spilled across the passenger seat.”
The other guys turned to look at her, and she felt their gazes moving over her bare legs.
“Any note?” she asked.
“Not that we know of. We don’t have her electronics yet.”
So it was a woman. Nicole turned to check out the car again. Emmet knelt beside Miranda now, shining his flashlight inside the vehicle. Their heads were close together, and they appeared to be examining something.
“I need you to interview the witness.”
She turned back to Brady. The chief wore his typical weekend attire of a barn jacket over a flannel shirt and jeans. He’d been off duty, too, but it didn’t look like he and his wife of thirty-plus years had been out celebrating.
“We tried to get her statement already, but she was pretty hysterical. Having some kind of panic attack, she said.”
“Owen was the first one here.”
She glanced at Owen, who had stepped away from the group to talk on his phone. He stood in the shadows with his back to everyone, as though he wanted privacy.
So, Owen Breda hadn’t been able to get a statement from the witness. Not exactly typical. Owen was one of their best detectives, and his easygoing charm put people at ease, particularly women.
“Where is she now?” Nicole asked.
“Over there.” Brady nodded toward the water.
Nicole turned and suddenly noticed the figure seated on the sand about thirty yards away. The person was little more than a shadow, really—just a dark silhouette sitting still as a statue.
“What’s she doing?” Nicole asked.
“No idea.” Brady said. “Woman’s a space cadet. We couldn’t even get an address out of her.”
In Brady’s book, a “space cadet” could mean someone who was high, or flakey, or habitually out of it, for whatever reason.
Nicole looked at the woman again. “Is she local?”
“She works at the Banyan Tree.”
Nicole turned to see Emmet walking over. “You interviewed her?”
“As much as I could.” He stopped and frowned down at her, hands on hips. “She kept having breathing issues.”
“Does she need a paramedic?”
“I tried. She didn’t want one. Said she just needed some space.”
Nicole looked at the woman again, then back at the chief. “I’ll go talk to her,” she said, zipping her jacket.
“Find out if she saw anything suspicious,” Brady instructed.
“It looks like a suicide, but you never know. Ask her if she saw anyone else around before she found the car.”
Nicole bit her tongue. Did he think she didn’t know how to conduct an interview?
“And pin down her timing,” Brady added.
She felt Emmet watching her and turned to look at him. He wore his usual leather jacket and jeans, but the hint of cologne told her he’d been on his way out somewhere when he got the call.
“Want me to go with you?” he asked.
“I’ll handle it.”
Nicole set off for the water, skirting around the halo of light provided by the portable klieg lights. In the distance, people were milling on the sand, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about. It was the off season, but the island still had plenty of snowbirds and full-time residents who liked to walk the beach at night, and all the first responders had caused a stir. No media yet, though, which was one bit of luck. But it wouldn’t be long. Suicide or not, a death on the beach would at least be worth a news brief in the mainland paper.
The witness sat cross-legged on the sand, her posture ramrod straight. The dark braid down her back went all the way to her waist. Her hands rested on her knees, palms up, and Nicole stopped in her tracks. Was she meditating?
Stepping closer, Nicole picked up a faint hum. She was meditating. This was a new one. Nicole didn’t know the etiquette here, but it didn’t matter. Someone was dead, and police needed a statement.
The humming stopped. The woman’s chest rose and fell. Then her head swiveled to face Nicole while the rest of her body remained stock still.
“I’m Detective Lawson, Lost Beach PD.” She pulled the badge from her pocket and held it up. Even in the dimness, she could see the woman’s expression didn’t change. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?”
A slight nod.
“I understand you came upon the car and called it in?”
She definitely was not hysterical. She seemed unnaturally calm, like maybe she was on something. She wore black leggings, sneakers, and a gray sweatshirt that looked a hell of a lot warmer than Nicole’s thin windbreaker. She was sitting on a jacket, too, probably to protect her clothes from the wet sand.
Witness Interrogation 101: Eye contact.
Nicole stepped closer and crouched down, tucking her knees under her jacket as her dress rode up.
“Cold out here, huh?” Nicole smiled.
“There’s a front coming in.”
“Do you jog out here often?”
“Three times a week. On my evenings off.”
“And where do you work?”
She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “I teach yoga at a studio downtown.”
“The Banyan Tree?”
“Sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”
Another deep breath. The woman’s eyes looked almost black in the dimness. She had pale skin, and Nicole wondered how long she had lived here. Most full-time residents had year-round tans unless they constantly slathered on sunscreen.
Nicole took the little spiral from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Is that with a ‘C’?”
“Yes.” She eyed the notepad with a wary look.
“And your home address, Cassandra?”
She rattled off the address of an apartment complex in town several blocks off the beach. Then she surprised Nicole by volunteering her phone number. With a twinge of satisfaction, Nicole jotted everything down. Already she’d managed to get more than Owen.
“So, you mind tell me about what happened? How you came upon the vehicle?”
The woman turned her face to the water and took another deep breath. Deep breaths seemed to be a big thing with her.
“I was nearing my midpoint.”
“I always turn around at the lighthouse.”
“I noticed the car when I first passed it.”
“What time was this?”
“I don’t know. About ten after six?”
Nicole made a note. “Did you see anyone inside?”
“No. I thought it was empty.”
“Did you get a close look at it?”
She shook her head. “I was running. Then I reached the lighthouse and turned around, and that’s when I got a weird vibe.”
“A vibe about what?”
“Just, you know, a feeling. I knew something was off. Something about the car bothered me.”
Weird vibe, something off, Nicole scribbled.
“I thought maybe someone was swimming or surfing. The waves are high today. But there’s a riptide here, and there are warning signs all over the place. I started to get worried that maybe someone was out there alone.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out for an eternity as Nicole waited, her pen poised above her notepad.
“Then I jogged over for a closer look, and that’s when I saw the dreamcatcher.” She glanced over her shoulder at all the cops. “I recognized it.”
She turned to face her. “The car. The dreamcatcher. All of it seemed familiar. I looked closer, and sure enough, it was her.”
Nicole leaned closer. “You’re saying you know the person who—”
“Yes. She’s one of my students.”