Solana Beach, California
Sunday, May 31st
He stepped carefully from the ceramic tile and steamed glass shower stall, naked and dripping wet, to the plush dry carpet in the bathroom. His exposed flesh was immediately draped by an icy blanket of swirling air that surged steadily from an overhead ventilation duct.
J.P. Ballard’s eyes glistened with devilish intent. His mind was preoccupied by a mélange of indecent thoughts as he pictured the beautiful, voluptuous woman in silk lingerie who would be sharing his bed during the evening hours ahead.
He reached toward the towel bar on the wall only to find it empty. With his lewd machinations of erotic desires unexpectedly disrupted, he turned and stared curiously toward the adjacent room.
Was he losing his mind?
He suddenly remembered he had left the large bath towel on top of the bed. He had placed it there after he had dried his hands when the food had arrived.
The honeymoon suite at the hotel included a mini refrigerator, a raised bar, and a sunken hot tub. An opened, chilled bottle of Napa Valley champagne was set on top of the bar. There were separate plates of jumbo shrimp cocktail with zesty horseradish sauce and of fresh strawberries and whipped cream arranged decadently on a silver tray nearby.
A king-size bed with down-filled pillows was centered in the room and placed against the far wall. Small, foil-wrapped squares of Ghirardelli dark chocolate had been meticulously placed on each pillow.
The room had cost more than double the price of a standard room with two full-size beds. But inwardly, J.P. Ballard was satisfied with his decision. He knew it would make her happy.
She hadn’t arrived yet for their intimate, clandestine rendezvous. The sun had set nearly an hour before, and his mind was going mad with an impulsive yearning of escalating anticipation.
How long had he secretly plotted to take her in his arms, to devour her sexy curves from parted red lips to the tender nape of her neck to her luscious, firm breasts to the moistened inner sanctum of her quivering thighs?
He glanced outside the room again to the digital alarm clock on the nightstand by the bed.
Plenty of time to prepare before she’s due to arrive.
He planned to shave and to trim his fingernails and toenails. He wanted to look and smell his best for their first time together making love.
He had selected a new short-sleeve polo top and a comfortable pair of lightweight dress slacks that were two inches smaller in the waistline than he had been wearing a month ago. He had hung them in the closet so that they would not wrinkle.
He was nervous, excited, and aroused.
At first, he had felt sharp prickles of anxiety to approach her. He was so pleased with himself afterward when he had finally suggested they get together, privately. Then he was over the moon with pride and wanton lust when she had smiled warmly and touched him on the shoulder to whisper the word yes softly and seductively in his ear.
“Why hadn’t you asked me sooner?” she had inquired.
He had no immediate answer to that, other than his own lack of confidence in himself and the fear a rejection could somehow be used against him. He had a family and too much in the way of material things to lose. There were secrets he couldn’t allow to become exposed. He could never let that happen. He had to protect those things he had worked so hard to attain over the years.
There was a sudden knock at the door.
She was early.
J.P. Ballard hadn’t even toweled off yet. His skin glimmered with the moisture of the hot shower. His cock had hardened with the expectation of her arrival. He wouldn’t allow her to wait a moment longer than necessary.
He strode confidently toward the door. His smile extended broadly from ear to ear. He pumped up his chest and tried to suck in his belly as much as he could.
Oh, what a night it will be!
Ballard didn’t bother to check the peephole in the middle of the door. His dreams of libidinous pleasure over the course of the next three nights with this amazing woman were about to be answered. He turned the knob and thrust the door open wide.
Her appearance was not what he had envisioned.
She grinned amusingly from the darkened threshold outside the room.
“Somebody’s happy to see me,” she blurted shamelessly. She switched off the beam from her flashlight.
“I’ve been waiting for this chance to be with you ever since I first saw you dance at the club. You remember when that was, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” she replied. “A long time ago, it seems. A different life. May I come in, or are you waiting for our neighbors to get a good look at you?”
“By all means,” he offered. “Please come on inside. I didn’t realize there was any rain in the forecast this week. You’re all decked out in your waterproof rain gear and heavy-duty flashlight. Are we expecting a hurricane?”
“More like a tsunami,” she said, and laughed softly.
He shrugged indifferently. Sometimes he didn’t understand her quirky sense of humor. He couldn’t care less about the generation gap that separated their birth dates. She was nearly half his age, incredibly sexy, and had made her motivations of monetary gain perfectly clear. He knew what she wanted, and he was happy to provide that in exchange for the sexual favors she would mischievously submit to him in return.
He turned his back to her and took a few steps toward the bed. He had a perplexed and puzzled expression marked upon his face. He could have sworn the weather forecast called for a lingering heat wave with clear, sunny skies and temperatures in the upper nineties to the low triple digits over the next few days. He had packed a bottle of sunscreen into his suitcase for that very reason.
“Let me grab my towel,” he said. “I had just stepped out from the shower.”
“Take your time,” she suggested. “We’ve got all night.”
He felt empowered and unstoppable at that moment. He heard the abrupt snap as the door closed shut. She slipped the deadbolt firmly into place.
“Make yourself a drink,” he called over his bare shoulder. “There’s some snacks on the bar and an assortment of beer, wine, and liqueurs. I opened a bottle of champagne, too. I felt like celebrating our first night together.”
“That’s so sweet of you,” she said.
“I don’t mind saying,” he replied, “I’ve been thinking about you all day. You’re my dream come true.”
“I hope to be all that and more.”
“Oh, you are, my dear,” he replied.
“The shrimp cocktail looks delicious,” she said. “And I know what I’d like to do with the whipped cream.”
He bent down to pick the folded bath towel off the embroidered comforter atop the bed. He couldn’t wait to gaze upon her nude body. To taste her lips and to touch her all over. To feel himself pulsing inside her.
Calm yourself down, man. There’ll be plenty of time for that later tonight.
He began to unfold the large Turkish cotton bath towel that had been dropped carelessly on top of the bed.
Suddenly the room went dark.
There was a helpless sense of apprehension, as if he were inside a subterranean elevator shaft after the cable had broken. He felt intense pressure weighing down on him.
He had difficulty breathing. Fear swept over him. There was a ringing in his ears.
When his eyes finally fluttered open, he was crawling on his hands and knees. The hotel room was spinning in circles around him, like a gyroscope that wobbled on its axis. Saliva dripped uncontrollably from his open mouth to the carpet below. He felt inebriated and woozy.
A large black metal flashlight lay on the corner at the foot of the bed. It was the one she had brought for the tsunami. There was a red splotch of liquid oozing over the transparent end of the lens cap.
Was that blood?
His vision was fuzzy and out of focus. His head ached with the worst migraine he could ever imagine.
There was an immediate metallic clicking sound, as if a tin can lid were being pried open.
He perceived the comforting caress of her fingers against the back of his neck, and he relaxed. He felt safe.
“What the fuck happened?” he mumbled unsteadily.
There was no reply.
It would be the last question he would ever ask.
San Diego, California
Wednesday, June 3rd
On an extended lunch break from her downtown Gaslamp Quarter office, Micheline Avila drove her shiny new Ford Mustang hardtop on a vital mission of great importance to herself. She headed briskly along Harbor Drive near San Diego Bay toward the Coronado Bridge.
Time was critical. It was a matter of life or death for the passengers she urgently transported to her home near the naval base.
Micheline smiled contentedly as she glanced to her right. Next to her, a white Styrofoam cooler was securely buckled into the front passenger seat. Micheline was coming from the pet store where she had purchased a dozen freshwater cichlids, including some colorful species of peacock, electric blue, and some aptly named black-and-white-striped convict fish. There were also a few black-and-gray-spotted plecos meant to scavenge the algae in her seventy-five-gallon aquarium. The tank was complete with decorative blue pebbles along the bottom and a sunken shipwreck of a three-masted Spanish galleon for the fish to commingle within.
The fish had been placed by the shop owner into a clear plastic tube filled with fresh water and sealed shut on one end. The bags were essentially elongated water balloons stuffed with the fresh catch of the day. Each tube was laid into the open cavity of the Styrofoam cooler and the lid was taped closed on top.
Micheline’s career demanded much of her time and often took her away at odd hours of the night and day. Maintaining a fish tank, rather than keeping a dog or a cat, seemed a reasonable way to have some company in her two-bedroom condo. The fish didn’t require much upkeep. They brightened up the atmosphere, and the exotic colors were a perfect blend for her condo’s location overlooking the bay and the San Diego skyline in the distance.
The road ahead was clear. Micheline shifted into fifth gear. The car hummed with the perfect tension of power and velocity. Traffic flowed freely in both directions. A Navy destroyer was traversing the blue waters out in the bay, as were several small sailboats. Sunlight glinted brightly off the churning white-capped wavetops.
Except for the excessive heat wave that had boiled across the coastal strip from Seattle and points southward, it was a perfect day.
The brown and white city garbage truck turned onto the road from out of nowhere.
A direct collision was imminent.
Micheline reacted with calm precision. She expertly pulled up on the parking brake and spun the steering wheel hard to the left into opposing traffic. The garbage truck crossed the center line directly in front of her. She released the brake and turned the wheel hard to the right to miss an oncoming motorcycle.
The Mustang made a sharp Z maneuver and almost made it clear. But the truck slowed down, and the right front bumper of the Mustang plowed into the rear end of the truck. The impact knocked the car back several feet before Micheline could bring it to a stop facing southward across the northbound lane.
The garbage truck spun sideways and came to a screeching halt. It faced northward in the opposite direction of the southbound traffic flow.
Great, a fucking fender bender!
Traffic was stalled in both northbound and southbound directions. Micheline slammed both fists on the steering wheel. She took a moment to calm herself.
Deep breath. Let it out slow.
Then she promptly got out of her car and snapped several photos of her car, of the garbage truck, and of the positions of both vehicles in the general area with her cell phone. No one in any of the nearby vehicles appeared to be injured.
The driver of the garbage truck exited his vehicle with a worrisome look on his face. He approached Micheline cautiously.
“I’m so sorry, miss,” he implored. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I am. How about you?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’m okay. I’m sorry. I thought I could make the turn from the side street. I misjudged it badly.”
Micheline shook her head in frustration.
No fucking kidding!
She turned and inspected the front quarter panel damage to her sporty new car. Knowing there were no injuries, and thankfully no fatalities, she organized her thoughts by priority. She had to get the fish home to become acquainted with their new habitat, and then she would need to drive to the Ford dealership to schedule a repair.
She would require a loaner vehicle that afternoon to return her to work. There were several time-sensitive files on her desk she was obligated to review.
Her phone rang. She recognized the caller ID immediately. Before she could say her name or offer a greeting, her ear was buzzed with firm instructions on where she needed to be and little in the way of description as to what was expected when she would arrive at that destination. She remained quiet, listened attentively, and confirmed she understood her new directives.
Oh, fuck! Why today of all days?
Micheline reached into her wallet and extracted her business card. She handed the card to the driver of the garbage truck without the benefit of introductions.
“Please take this,” she said. “I’ve got to run, but I’ll be in touch.”
“But shouldn’t we wait? Don’t you need my information? This is a company vehicle.”
Micheline held up her phone and took a closeup snapshot of the driver’s face.
“I’ve got everything I need. We’ll talk soon.”
She abruptly turned and left the garbage truck driver on the roadway in stunned silence.
The Mustang roared to life as Micheline depressed the electronic start button on the charcoal gray dashboard. She maneuvered the muscle car deftly through the obstacle course of displaced northbound traffic.
Then she crossed back into the southbound lane beyond the misaligned garbage truck and raced away.
Solana Beach, California
Wednesday, June 3rd
Detective Micheline Avila of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department courteously lifted the yellow crime scene tape from across the paint-scratched doorway and obligingly allowed her newly assigned senior partner, Detective Guillermo Reyes, enough clearance to pass into the malodorous and dimly lit hotel room.
Outside, the potent coastal air was stiflingly hot and thick with the raw essence of sea salt blown inland by an arid and unremitting Pacific breeze. The sun’s rays glared intensely off exposed windowpanes and reflected sharply from the well-worn concrete pavement. Farther away, faint echoes of seagull cries intermingled with rolling ocean waves as the foaming surf crashed and receded in timeless rhythmic cadence upon the rocky shoreline.
Once inside the suffocating enclosure that loudly announced Death’s presence without uttering a single word, Guillermo squinted hard. It was a feeble attempt to adjust his aging eyes to the shadowy darkness that seemed to swallow him whole. He accidentally stumbled forward, and abruptly emitted a staccato burst of rapid-fire wheezes and rasps.
“Smells rank in here,” Guillermo noted as he regained his balance. Embarrassed by his lack of youthful grace, the elder detective grimaced and rolled his eyes self-consciously from left to right. He exhaled quickly and wheezed again with difficulty.
“The AC had purposefully been switched off,” Micheline remarked candidly from behind him, “presumably by our killer upon their exit from the premises.”
“Feels like a goddamn sweatbox in here.”
“They left a hot shower running with the bathroom door wide open, too. The humidity inside both rooms is overwhelming, to say the least.”
“It reminds me of the Yucatán jungles outside of Mérida during the worst of the summer months.”
“The body’s over by the bed,” Micheline said, pointing forward. “Most of it, anyway. It’s not a pretty sight. Are you okay?”
“I’ll be all right,” Guillermo waved her off. “The heat’s got to me today, is all.”
“Want me to get you some water?”
“No, thanks,” Guillermo responded impatiently. “Let’s get on with this. I promised my wife I’d be home at a reasonable hour tonight. Foolish of me for making promises I can never keep.”
“Still, I meant it when I said it this morning. So, I guess that counts for something, right?”
“I suppose,” Micheline affirmed. She scrunched her nose at the putrid odor of early decomposition and stepped carefully across the perimeter threshold of the doorway into the active crime scene.
“The M.E.’s already inside,” Micheline pressed on. “Blood splatter suggests the victim, white male, fifty-eight, stripped naked as the day he was born, was down on his knees and facing toward the far wall when the carotid artery was severed.”
“Ouch! Any chance this was a suicide?”
“Nope. There’s no weapon present or accounted for. The room had been swept, too. Our victim was attacked from behind and his body was mutilated after the fact. He bled out on the floor by the bed. The flashlight rammed up his ass also appears to have been inserted postmortem.”
“I like your take on things, Michelle,” the venerable detective uttered as he wiped a beaded swath of sweat from his brow. He seemed not to notice he addressed her by the wrong name.
“There’s no messing around with you young northeastern Latinas with your fancy college degrees. You’re all business, giving me the play-by-play with scrupulous detail. It’s like you’re a sports announcer down on the sidelines during a football game with the latest player injury update.”
Guillermo noticed that Micheline carried a wire bound notebook and a clickable gel pen with her. Old school. He was surprised she wasn’t using a tablet. He had forgotten his own notebook in the car.
“Take my advice, though,” he suggested.
“I’m focused on the job and the crime scene,” she contended sharply. “There’s a dead body on the floor.”
“You’ve got to lighten up some. With me, there’s no need to be so by-the-book. It’s okay from time to time to say something mellifluous or off-the-cuff. Something unexpected but applicable to the situation at hand.”
Guillermo motioned toward the back corner of the hotel room with a casual wave of his hand.
“Hey, what’s up this guy’s ass? You know what I mean? It lightens the mood a bit. Puts us both in the right frame of mind to absorb the shock somehow we never see coming when we first arrive to view another dead body on the job.”
“I’m not going to make any bad action movie wisecracks, if that’s what you’re suggesting,” Micheline countered.
She frowned somewhat discontentedly. In her mind, this was not a time or place to be joking around. She was sweating bullets and her nerves were on fire. She was busy surveying the murder scene for the second time that afternoon. To make matters worse, her new underwire bra itched uncomfortably in the torrid confines of the sauna-like hotel room.
Had it not been for the thick veil of steam that enshrouded the room like a San Francisco evening fog, it would have been considered a nice hotel room, too. All it was missing was a direct view to the nearby beach and a wide palm tree-lined oceanfront esplanade on the far side of the building.
It was clean, or at least it had been prior to the events leading up to the murder, and it was relatively private. There was direct access from a side street parking lot and the room, although expensive, was not overly priced by southern California standards.
The headboard of a king-size bed was positioned against the far wall. The M.E. stood in the far corner of the room, next to a wooden nightstand with digital alarm clock. He was dressed from head-to-toe in white fluid-resistant coveralls with hood, face mask and safety glasses, gloves, and boots to cover his shoes.
Directly opposite of the bed, a large screen high-definition television was mounted on the wall above a wide wooden clothes dresser. On the other side of the perfectly made and undisturbed bed, face down, drowned in a pool of congealed blood and other dried matter of an indescribable nature, lay a chubby naked white male with a long black cylindrical metal flashlight placed appropriately where the sun is not meant to shine.
“Somebody really stuck it to him good, huh?” Guillermo quipped sarcastically as he peered around the corner of the bed to take a closer look at the victim.
Micheline rolled her eyes and caught herself unconsciously smirking.
Damn, that was funny!
“There you go, partner,” Guillermo bellowed with a twinkle of surprise in his eyes. “You’ll get the hang of this soon enough. I know it’s not in your nature, but you’ve got to keep your sense of humor, otherwise the horror and the ugliness of it all will start to eat away at your sanity from the inside.”
“I’ve learned over the years it’s always best to ease into it at first. Take your time to absorb your surroundings. It’s natural to feel pure dread when you first arrive on scene.”
“I’ve been doing this for a while now.”
Guillermo nodded. “Then later, after you’ve got your bearings, you lean in hard and crack the case wide open with all the facts you’ve gathered. You want your presentation of evidence and motive to the prosecuting attorney to be beyond reproach.”
“I appreciate the suggestions, Guillermo. Really, I get that. But let’s cut to the chase, please. Why did you request for me to partner with you on this case?”
Micheline’s tone carried more than a hint of a rough edge to it. She tried to stop the anger from coating her words. Her day had already started off badly and she didn’t want to unnecessarily offend the much more seasoned Detective Reyes, especially on the first day of a murder investigation. After all, working for the Homicide Squad was her dream. But several things didn’t add up in her mind and she wasn’t about to be toyed with.
“You’re a well-respected veteran on the force,” Micheline pressed on, “and we’ve never partnered before. I’m a woman and my surname would suggest I’m Latina. So, maybe you think your macho male attitude can pass for California cool out here, seeing as I’m not a born-and-bred local like you are.”
“That’s not it at all.”
“Listen,” she continued with a razor-sharp edge to her voice. “My intuition’s getting the better of me. The top brass assigned me to investigate fraud and money scams in Financial Crimes after a brief stint in the Domestic Violence Unit this past year. So far, I haven’t worked with the Homicide Squad out here in San Diego, even though I’ve worked as the senior investigating officer on active crime scenes successfully throughout my career back in New York.”
“I’m aware,” he said.
Micheline’s blue eyes narrowed and the small muscles in her jaw flexed with tension. She wanted to make her next point crystal clear.
“So, I must respectfully ask, did your regular partner run out on you and leave you hanging, or did you lose a bet? I’m not at all anxious to be made fun of for the sake of some stupid office pool. It’s happened before. Men can be such pricks sometimes.”
Guillermo shrugged and looked somewhat serious for a moment.
“First of all,” he replied, “pretty much everyone out here came from somewhere else at one time or another. Take me as a perfect example. I wasn’t born here, as you may have incorrectly assumed. My accent should have given that away. I was born in Reynosa in northern Mexico. It’s just across the border from McAllen, Texas.”
“I didn’t realize,” Micheline said. “Sorry.”
“When I first arrived here,” Guillermo continued, “I immediately felt like an outsider. My parents moved our entire family to Chula Vista when I was a teenager. We all became American citizens, legally. My dad was a director of supply chain for a maquiladora, a foreign-owned electronics factory with manufacturing sites in northern Mexico, San Diego, and southeast Asia. He placed a great emphasis on family, education, learning to speak English, and hard work. He believed in the American dream.”
Guillermo stopped short and paused a moment to slow his breathing. Then he emitted a heavy whistle as he inhaled another sharp breath.
“I graduated from the police academy right after high school,” he said, “and I’ve been a cop ever since. I’ve got myself a nice house overlooking a park in Bonita. But most people you meet out here will probably tell you they relocated here for work after they graduated from college in the Midwest or Texas or from someplace back east, just like you.”
Guillermo paused again for a moment to let his words sink in. “So, you’re not alone, Detective. You’ll find yourself talking to plenty of people who live here now, but they have family roots in Minneapolis or Pittsburgh. They come from all over, too. Places like Boston or Philadelphia or even Miami, and they know firsthand what tropical storms and winter snow and freezing temperatures feel like. They don’t miss it, either. For everyone living out here in the southwest, it’s all about sunny blue skies and palm trees and ocean waves from here on in.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Micheline stood firm. She locked her eyes steadfastly on those of her new partner, who exhibited distinct visual signals of being less than forthright.
Guillermo looked upward and to his left when he spoke, and he hesitated before speaking. He appeared to be nervous and chose his words carefully, even though all that came out seemed to be a ramble of insignificant facts.
He was clearly hiding something. Micheline was on to the ruse Guillermo seemed to be playing, and she didn’t want to be the punchline for some internal fraternity department prank.
Obviously, I’ve got trust issues.
Guillermo appeared to falter under the intense visual stare-down from his new partner. His jaw cringed awkwardly. He knew immediately he had made an excellent choice in selecting the tough and serious-minded female detective who had relocated to southern California from the Hudson River community of Edgewater, New Jersey.
The word around the department was Micheline had been an outstanding member of the NYPD’s Homicide Division. She was a female sleuth with incredible instinct, a respectable track record for closing what were thought to be unsolvable crimes, and she came with a pedigree. Her father was a retired FBI special agent.
Micheline had degrees in criminal justice and forensic behavioral science, she was divorced, she had no kids they knew of, she had trust issues, and she had a difficult time fitting in at first.
She hadn’t yet learned how to dress properly for the Pacific lifestyle. Her Fifth Avenue sense of uptown Manhattan fashion was obvious. She still looked up at the sky and expected rain. Over time, the sunbaked California climate would force her to consider lighter fabrics and more casual attire.
Guillermo could clearly detect an abundance of admirable traits in his new female partner. He was certain he was only seeing what was immediately noticeable from the surface. There were bound to be so many more interesting and diverse qualities hidden beneath those thick-skinned outer layers once the surface ice was effectively melted away.
Detective Micheline Avila was confident, intelligent, and determinedly fierce. She was a fighter. She would never back down on a murder investigation or during an argument when she knew she was right. Ever.
And damn if she wasn’t beautiful, too.
Robert Valletta is the author of the international espionage thriller CROSSFIRE, a 2021 American Fiction Awards Finalist. He grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and backpacked across Europe at an early age. His debut novel A FOREIGNER’S HEART is based upon his real-life overseas adventures. He now lives with his wife in southern California.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.