Breezy, Black criminal attorney Tara Delacruz gets unpopular clients exonerated while her rival, the white-bread mayor and secret immortal, Cord Smith, wants them off his streets. Somewhere along their craggy coast, a fiend buries his victims at low tide at neck level. When tide rises, they don’t drown. Their town is spooked. Cord knows someone has found an evil use for immortality and believes the lawyer may have run across him. When he’s forced to speak with her, he falls for the woman he censures. Bound to a secret conspiracy, he can’t share everything but warns her not to accept a twisted case.
Seated alone in a corner booth, criminal lawyer Tara Delacruz allowed herself some satisfaction. She’d prepared long and hard for a trial. Its abrupt acquittal was good news for her client.
“Buck Toolbox” was accused of robbing convenience stores near the California-Nevada border. His stomping grounds, down a gravel road behind the Denny’s restaurant, defined him. He hadn’t evolved far from the “dirt” section.
She pulled at the loose-fitting waistband of her skirt and guessed she’d dropped a size. Stuck in a tired-and-wired state, she wanted to treat herself, maybe unwind with a haircut, before heading home to the coast. A cut was a cut, she thought, whether or not they had experience with springy kinks. She wore hers natural. She’d spent plenty of time around the courthouse where one felony judge, P.J. “Pat” Williams presided. The train still ran through the old section of town, and she’d spotted a beauty shop in the original, now trendy, station.
A soft rain in the Mojave Desert town felt like a deportment of better days. She hoped so. Vicious attacks had rocked her hometown of Landings Beach, California. So far, victims were homeless beach bums, not quite murdered. Strangled into submission and buried neck level when the tide was low, they didn’t drown at high tide. Townspeople were glad they were alive, but it didn’t add up. They were spooked.
To check the time, she flipped open her cell. Four-forty was a bit early for dinner. She tapped her fingers. The staff was short-handed at Denny’s. A little wait was a small thing, she decided. Fretting was something she did when she wasn’t under pressure.
She breathed relief as she watched an older waitress hustle toward her. Well, hell, here she is, finally. To refresh her memory, she scanned the waitress’s name tag and smiled appreciatively. “Good afternoon, Madelyn.”
“Our cook didn’t show. Someone will be here shortly, Hon.” Madelyn handed her a menu and set down a glass of water with a splash. She mopped it with a rag. “I need to pitch in.”
“Thank you for the water.” As she watched Madelyn head to the kitchen, she knew she’d miss the place. The always short-handed, down to earth employees appealed to her.
Pulling out her laptop, she decided to update her profit-and-loss statement for several weeks. Having kept a running time tab in a tiny notebook, she entered the total with one fell sweep, impressive for one so technically challenged.
Her client had paid her a hefty lump when she’d agreed to take his case. Those accused of criminal acts never shopped for the best price. Avoiding prison was a non-elastic demand.
She needed to let her associate know she’d be leaving the boonies in the morning. In his sixties, the private investigator was like an uncle to her. Dialing, she didn’t want to put him on the spot.
Hired by the family of a missing teenage boy, the detective had no leads the last time they’d spoken. She knew he didn’t have an unrealistically high opinion of the police who’d pegged the teen as a runaway.
“Leviticus, it’s me.”
“Hey.” He’d dispensed with chitchat months before. His lacking preamble also let her know he’d tired of holding down the office in her absence.
“Doing okay, Leviticus?” She expected the widower to be grumpy.
“I’m okay.” His exasperated sigh let her know he wasn’t. “How’s the Toolbox trial going?” His subject change referred to her case, the complaint brought against Robert Zeke O’Toole, a handyman in Landings Beach. He hadn’t heard it was closed.
“There wasn’t one. He was acquitted this afternoon. Other evidence was insubstantial.” She brightened at the thought of being paid the same amount for less work and shut her laptop.
“Video tapes were fuzzy.” She pictured the grainy black and white images. “We reviewed security tapes for hours in the judge’s chambers. The perpetrator wore a ball cap and a plastic pair of glasses with a nose attached.”
“No other evidence against him?”
“One female clerk heard the robber whistle through his teeth. She claimed he sounded just like the Buckster. It wasn’t enough proof. Cameras were soundless.”
“Did Buck ask, ‘Whistle how?’” Leviticus’ reaction was somewhat amusing but bordered on critical. When she’d left for the expected trial, two hundred miles east of the Pacific coast, Leviticus had warned her to quit her obsession to rescue every client from the three-strike law.
“In all the time I’ve spent with Buck, I’ve never heard him whistle. Of these robberies, anyway, I believe he’s innocent. I’m his litigator, not his friend.”
“He hails from Lone Palm, am I right?” He was pushing toward relentless, but that quality defined his work.
“Not only did he grow up here, he was spotted on New Year’s Eve when the stores were hit.” She slid her laptop to the far end of the table and pulled out a Day-Timer, much preferred over a digital calendar. When it came to tech, she did the minimum.
“Well, Judge Williams called it.” It seemed he was done talking about it. “When are you heading back, Tara?”
“Tomorrow. I’m about to have a celebration dinner with the ‘recently acquitted’ here at Denny’s.” If given the choice, she’d have preferred the company of the P.I. for two reasons. He was a good conversationalist, and she worried about him. Being alone in the office and returning to an empty home put him at risk for depression. She opened flipped open her Day-timer to the next day. She’d made a note to buy him a birthday present and would do that on her way back.
“Bet this isn’t the first meal you’ve had there.” He let out a baritone chortle.
She felt more peaceful, hearing him laugh. “How right you are.” Denny’s was one of two restaurants in town. Since the other was the 7-Eleven, she’d become a Denny’s regular.
“When will Buck and his Harley-friendly ponytail make an appearance?”
“He’s fifteen minutes late.”
“Criminal clients don’t like formalities.” Usually Leviticus offered congratulations.
“I took your advice and asked for fifty thousand.”
“They do pay the freight.”
Usually rushed, an evening without pressure began to sound pleasant. After dinner, she’d pack and then drag her tired bones to the motel pool, get in a couple dozen laps before turning in. Out of respect for his age, she paused, waiting for him to end the conversation.
He didn’t. “In case you wondered, I haven’t made much progress with the Jennings case.”
“That must weigh on you.” She knew the boy had dropped out of high school and hung out at the beach.
“My search dead ended at the fairgrounds. I interviewed a buddy of his who thought he’d joined the traveling carnival.”
“That’s one assumption. Tomorrow’s a new day.”
He said, “That reminds me, I have a Rotary breakfast tomorrow morning. After that, I’ll head over to the mayor’s rally.” Leviticus was one of Cord Smith’s strongest supporters. It was odd, she thought, the mayor never seemed to age.
“I contributed to his campaign. Part of his platform addresses the high school dropout rate.”
“That and the wetlands. Well, drive safe, Tara.”
Wetlands, did he say? Any mention of the youngish, “cowboy” mayor made her panties go wet. With their phone call over, she shifted in her booth and dropped her cell into her bag, but her thoughts returned to the brutalities.
The most recent victim was another homeless man, found along the secluded, foggy beach of the Chaumont Estate. Like the others, he’d been buried up to his neck in the sand. When dug out, he was brought to the psychiatric unit with others who lived to tell of taunting. Prior to the attacks, the mental state of the homeless was questioned.
For both the cops and the staff in the ward, it was a dirty business to sort out. The townspeople were spooked.
Her own business in the desert had not been pleasure. Buck rode her nerves. She wanted to get home to mundane cases, her dogs, her new house, and her volunteer work. A tutor at the teen center, she’d missed their fresh-faces and their homework challenges.
Befriending a young waitress, Kiwana, had been a pleasant diversion. From her corner vantage point she spotted the statuesque eighteen-year-old hurrying toward her.
“You’re looking at the breakfast menu. Want to mix it up, Tara?” Her voice bubbled with an easy charm. Her Denny’s uniform, black slacks and apron with an aqua golf shirt, was attractive against her complexion, mahogany, like hers.
“Okay, Kiwana. ‘Moons over my Hammy,’ a side salad, and iced tea would be great. How are things with you?”
“Good.” A week before, Kiwana had shared her dream of becoming a nurse. She’d mailed two applications to community colleges, one in Landings Beach and one in Los Angeles.
“You probably don’t have any news as yet.”
The girl’s broad smile let her know otherwise. From her apron pocket she pulled a folded envelope, bouncing as she waved it. “I made it into L.A. Tech’s vocational nursing program.”
Behind her, the head waitress shoved her fried, not-from-nature ochre hair to the side. “If she’s interested, Ki has a job at a Denny’s close to the college. We’re gonna miss her but can’t wait to see her in scrubs.”
“Kiwana will make scrubs look good.” Tara was glad this sweet girl didn’t get into the program in Landings Beach. It was too dangerous even for the tourist trade. The serial crimes had their roots in murder.
A chill swept through her. Townspeople spoke of seeing apparitions. As illogical as it was, a Chinese man dressed like an old-time railroad coolie roamed the streets.
After the Rotarian’s breakfast meeting, Mayor Cordell Smith meandered languidly along the misty beach. The scent of salt air on the ocean breeze was mixed with wood smoke. He wanted to warn beach bums of the danger.
He had a half-hour to collect his thoughts before his re-election rally. He’d tried to call it off. With a psycho still at large, it wasn’t his platform issues that mattered. Townspeople used it as an excuse to get together, mull things over.
While P.I. Leviticus Blake headed toward his car, Cord backtracked, hoping to pick his brain for details. Ten feet back, Cord heard him fiddle with his keys.
If it weren’t for the thick fog the day before, Rotarians and others would be cleaning up the beach. Scheduled four times a year to rid the beach of trash, he considered its dual purpose. A teen had gone missing.
Looking down, something gleamed and caught his eye. He bent, picked up a red plastic case, and dropped it into his pocket.
Rounding a rock outcropping, he tripped and landed palms down on something round. Plum hard. Can’t be a volleyball. Gotta be hair. He flinched, scooted on his heels, and brushed off sand.
Behind him, the detective had found his electronic key and clicked open his door.
He wasn’t sure why his immortality made his hearing so dratted acute. “Leviticus! Over here!” He tried to mask the alarm in his voice, not wanting to draw other Rotarians. Not this, not a teen. Agony caught him in an iron grip.
“What’s up, Cord?” Leviticus rounded a boulder.
He tightened with raw sorrow and nodded downward. “I tripped. Fell on a human head.” As he dug around to free the body, he thought of other victims, hospitalized and under wraps in the psychiatric unit.
A veteran who’d seen a lot, Leviticus knelt calmly alongside him. “These clothes are rags. I’d say, from a month’s worth of tidal movement.”
When Cord sniffed, he caught the scent of fennel, an immortal’s aroma. On himself, he could only smell it when he exercised profusely. Aftershave usually concealed it.
“This body’s not decomposed.” Leviticus halted, shocked.
The boy’s herbal scent let Cord know the boy was alive and bonded to live forever. For a second his eyes followed feathery fennel plants all the way to the monstrous peak. Deer grazed on fennel. Ticks fed on deer. Deep in the mine, bacteria within ticks mutated. When ticks fed, the scent remained.
I always make out a face, as if the mineshaft stares madly down at me. Older generations have warned of the evil there, massive unbridled evil. The wise don’t look up, they’d said.
A rider for the Pony Express, he hadn’t known that rule when he’d chased his dog into it. 1861 was the year he’d gained the curse of immortality. Now he was the older generation.
He’d lived among The Others until seventeen years before when a distraught pregnant woman in town begged him to marry her. Their marriage failed, but he’d reaped his long life’s greatest reward, his daughter. His name was on her birth certificate.
Leviticus touched the victim’s face with little pats. “He’s feverish. I’ve seen people die. Never seen this.”
Few have. That’s why we keep the mine sealed. He stole a glance upward. Sunlight streaked through the fog, but misty clouds encircled the peak. Suddenly he worried where his daughter was and glanced at his watch. Time was something he had to think about because immediacy was lost. Kerrigan’s safe at school.
Tenderly, he helped Leviticus exhume the warm teenage boy. As they dug, sandy water filled the shallow hole. It was deep enough to hold him prisoner, but it wasn’t a grave.
Leviticus said, “After several days, the tide would have washed him free.”
Cord felt a sting of angry tears. “Someone continually buried him.” A fiend had found a sinister use for perpetual life, drowning short of death’s relief.
Unseeing eyes remained open on the teenage boy’s sunburned face. His mouth, raked to the side, held a silent scream.
Cord knew he’d come around but couldn’t talk of immortality with Leviticus, an outsider. He’d direct The Others to increase the fear level. Anxiety kept townspeople away from the mine.
Swinging off his jacket, Leviticus wrapped it around the boy. “Looks damn close to a photo I have of Bruce Jennings.”
Taking a closer look, Cord said, “I’m sure this is Bruce, Leviticus. He’s been to our place.”
Before Bruce had dropped out of high school, the boy was her friend in band. She labeled him a geek, a modern term that seemed to stand for an ostracized adolescent. No matter what they call each other, at their ages, they think they know everything. He felt a wave of panic erupt through his veins.
When the older man tried to stand, Cord helped him up and then returned to kneel beside Bruce. Even though the teen was comatose, Cord held his hand and fumbled with his cell to connect with the fire department.
In their small town, firemen handled the emergencies. “Mayor Smith here. We found a teenage boy on Main Beach.”
The dispatcher asked, “Need transport to the morgue?”
“Nope, he’s alive. I reckon he’ll make the trip to the hospital.”
You know him, and the hair and features fit the photo.” The older man brought out his cell. “The Jennings couple hired me to find their son.” He dialed the boy’s parents and asked them to meet them at the hospital for an I.D.
Cord groped in his pocket. “Saw this red plastic case before I tripped.” He handed the P.I. the possible evidence. “You’ve got a back scratching relationship with Police Sergeant Ditzman. When you give it to him, make a note about my prints.”
“Exacto knife cover.” Levititcus held out a plastic bag to catch it and commented on the missing blade.
The fire department’s emergency vehicle drove onto the beach. The men waited until Bruce was lifted onto a gurney and into the ambulance. They clustered with other volunteers and watched as the emergency truck pull away with sirens blaring.
The pair took long strides through sand back to their cars. Cord gave his friend’s stooped shoulder a pat. “So far, I understand there’s been no witnesses, no suspects.
“Salt water washes away trace evidence and saliva. Maybe we can pick up a fingerprint other than yours.” The P.I. headed to his car.
A moment later, Cord sat in his and couldn’t shake off conflicted feelings. He could use the detective’s help but couldn’t risk a leak. He could work the maze with Chung Han, an immortal he trusted. With a sudden sharp intake of breath, his heart raced.
He feared townspeople’s panic when gathered for his re-election rally that evening. He contemplated a worrisome microbiologist. When Dr. Gredell had voiced his theory about the teens’ survival, it came close to the truth.
The truth would throw the town into Bedlam.
The arrow-straight highway through the Mojave Desert had given Tara Delacruz the entire afternoon to decompress. Twilight was closing in, and the jazz music on her CD soothed her. She preferred it over all-news radio. The absence of hard facts stimulated more questions. Criminal cases gave her enough half truths.
Within the limits of Landings Beach, California, a breeze from her open car window felt like a perfect seventy-eight. She whiffed newly mown grass along the leafy residential boulevard. She’d missed the peninsular village, isolated between a mud-sliding mountain and the Pacific.
When the stoplight turned green, she expected the navy Lexus in front of her to move forward. She tapped the accelerator, heard a metallic crunch, and stomped on her brakes.
Ahead, a long arm stretched out the window and motioned for her to pull alongside the park. It was still daylight, safe.
She followed but groaned, wanting to stop at her office before going home. The thump qualified as a fender-bender. She knew in this jurisdiction, an accident wasn’t reported for damage less than five hundred if the drivers work it out.
She pushed the button on the glove compartment. The little door dropped down and she grabbed insurance information. When she pushed open her door, she collided with a hard chest.
The hotshot mayor looked down at her.
She staggered back. “Clumsy of me, bumping into you, Mayor Cord Smith. I mean both you and your car.”
“I’m obliged to say, I didn’t move with the light.” His brooding expression took her aback. “You’re the attorney.”
“I was on autopilot when the light turned green.” She brought out a plastic bag from her supply destined for the tutoring center. “Care for some trail mix while you inspect?” He smelled slightly of licorice. “Sometimes I throw Good and Plenty into the mix.”
“Do you.” He opened it and tossed a few morsels into his mouth while he glanced as his rear fender.
It was obvious he knew who she was. She didn’t allow his ominous gaze to stop her from facing him squarely. “You weren’t always the mayor. Before politics, you played the saxophone at the Red Beat Café. You’re the only cowpoke saxophonist I’ve ever encountered.” It was an odd coincidence. On her car CD player, his music had brought her home.
“It was invented in 1840 and popular in every band.”
“So, you’re a history buff.” In California, entertainers with name recognition ran for office and got elected. Many adopted Western witticism to get their points across. His solid build gave her a go-back moment.
He shoved a hand across his wavy brown hair. “I’ve seen you waltzing around the Red Beat.”
“You waltzed around, too, right over to my table.”
“I picked you out of the crowd.”
It had moved her in ways she’d never admit. “Eye contact never blossomed into words, but your saxophone was as expressive as a human voice. It swept me away.” Making music sexier than sex was what talented musicians did best.
“Well.” The bachelor’s voice sounded tentative. “Perhaps you’ll have dinner with me next week.”
“That sounds like a terrific idea.” She wondered if it would be as terrific as the fantasy playing through her mind. It involved him, naked, in a large bed. Her chest grew tight. If she got him alone in a room, she didn’t think they’d come out except to watch the orange sun set over the water. They’d go back inside when the sky turned velvet blue and starry.
He finished off the trail mix. “We had a missing teen turn up this morning.”
Her fantasy shut down immediately. “You must have found the Jennings boy.” Fear for the teen screamed in her mind.
“Right. Just after, I had a rally. Tried to postpone it.”
“Tried?” She hoped he wouldn’t be stingy with details.
“The posse didn’t come for me. There was something they wanted to chew on after young Bruce was found. They made more noise than a jackass in a tin barn.” He frowned.
When her brain picked up his negative message, her mood shifted into defensive. She decided to call him by his first name. Make them equals. “What are you telling me, Cord?”
“You should have stayed in the Mojave. Here, you’re in a hole. Before you dig out, you need to listen.”
“Sheesh.” The first name thing hadn’t worked. Told to listen, she felt like a teenager again. A black Hispanic, she often landed into trouble even with Mexican aliens.
“Bruce Jennings was buried in the sand at low tide. About a month ago, according to your associate, he was strangled and left for dead.”
“High tidewater should have drowned him.” She blinked back his edgy account.
As he leaned against her car, his legs stretched out long. He shoved the empty plastic mix bag into a pocket of his jeans.
“What’s his present condition?” She crossed her arms.
“He’s feverish. According to the lab, he carries a rare bug.” He glanced sideways at her, taking pains with his explanation, maybe not telling her everything he knew.
“Bruce suffered alone.” Seized with numbing dismay, her words came out stiff as she considered the boy’s horror.
“Doctors think he was unconscious the whole time. I rather doubt that.” He didn’t look at her when he spoke.
She watched him close his eyes in concentration and expected him to drop another bombshell.
“According to Dr. Stuart Gredell, his malady kept him alive.” There it was. His detonation discharged into her brain. “It seems a tad irrational.”
When he brought up Dr. Gredell, she became entirely skeptical. “He sounds like a brilliant microbiologist, but his theory isn’t viable.” She’d represented the rebel for a patent for an original thermo-chemical cycle. With water and heat input and oxygen-free radicals as output, she’d thought magic had to be the catalyst.
“Dr. Gredell says he’s a client of yours.”
“I’ve had him on my time sheet.” She didn’t want to take his money since she doubted that his bullshit patent would go through. To her surprise, his submission package included proofs with precise measurements. He’d paid her to file it, and she did.
Cord’s sharp gaze fastened to hers. “Townsfolk witnessed the unnatural. There was a riot. I saw their terror.”
“I believe you saw their terror.” She put her hands above her head in innocence.
“You and Gredell need to put your heads together. Come up with a less supernatural explanation.” Determined, his request put her on the spot.
She’d push back. “Here, I thought settling down frenzy was in your job description. Have a talk with your constituents.”
“That didn’t work. A few emerged as leaders. I wasn’t among them. As a lawyer, you know what happens after panic.”
“Logic falls apart.” She, like him, was in the people-swaying business.
“I tried to reason with them. So did Leviticus.”
“We watched them find their scapegoat.” Shades of frustration in his voice made her feel cold.
“Who might that be?” Her voice squeaked.
“You. The mob puts you with criminals.”
“When I represent a client, I do my loyal best. Does the lawyer-client association have a new twist?”
“Nope, same as always. They think you know evil and hide what you know.”
“Don’t tell me they found out I’m a near-death expert.” It was the first sarcastic thing that popped into her head.
“You’d sass the devil himself.”
“Haven’t met him face to face.” Her backtalk didn’t stop her hands from shaking. She hid them against her body. “Thanks for bringing the dynamics of paranoia to the fore.”
The outer edges of his eyes were the lightest blue she’d ever seen, as if he’d lived a hundred years. He hid them with brown contact lenses. “Be careful.” His voice was robust.
She gave him a smile which probably looked pitiful.
He must have picked up on it because he took her hand in his and kissed her palm. His lips were warm.
The spell of their intimate moment broke when he placed her hand at her waist and then let go. He looked down at her. “Let’s walk across the park and back.”
Keeping up with his stride, she took a breath. “When I drove into town, things looked the same.” She let her breath out as she talked. “I missed its beauty. I took the loop even though I could have cut across the peninsula to my office. The houses on the ocean side have porches and picture windows for the sunset. They’re set deep with boathouses. I just bought one. Today I’d rather be on the other side of the street.”
“Like a wren in the brush.” His forehead creased with male calculation. “By the way, you’re my daughter’s tutor.”
“I am? What’s your daughter’s name?”
She gasped with surprise.
Passing a stand of eucalyptus, he amazed her with a slight grin as he switched from mayor to dad.
“That little apple rolled pretty far from the tree. I’d heard you had a daughter. I didn’t make the connection.” She’d also heard he drove his young wife mad before he sent her packing. “Smith is a common name. Except for being of the white race, you and Kerrigan don’t look alike.”
“We don’t, do we?” He seemed to be a man of few words when things got personal, but his expression softened with talk of his daughter.
They strolled between trees that arched into a shady green tunnel. Bright flowers lay ahead.
She’s a sweetheart. You must be proud.” She bent to sniff a garden of pink snapdragons, knee-high behind a petunia border.
“Her grades shot up.” They shared a smile, but his wasn’t for her.
Hers was insincere and had to do with disappointment even though Kerrigan’s improvement was partly due to her tutoring.
Pensive again, he stared at her until a muscle twitched in his cheek. “We should have a personal talk.”
“Personal enough to ask why you never remarried?”
“Once was enough.” His voice sounded tighter. The rims of his eyes shown like blue platinum under his brown lenses. His face was on the pretty side of handsome with a perfect but prominent nose and chin. He kneaded his forehead for the second time.
“Your forehead gives you a problem?” she asked.
“Headache’s obvious, huh? Look, Tara, you and I come from two different places. You get riffraff back on my streets. Advice from me isn’t going to set well. When you get to the office, ask Leviticus give you the lowdown on the town’s reaction to you and Buck Toolbox.”
Tara struck an online mother lode. Cases came back describing a syndrome, named for an individual with the last name, Munchausen. He was an eighteenth-century German baron, infamous for telling lies. The Munchausen syndrome, identified thirty years before by doctors, referred to patients who feigned illness or harmed themselves to secure attention or sympathy. Some were after a disability check.
Munchausen by Proxy was slightly different. Proxy means substitute. The child was “Munchausened”. She printed out several cases and studied them over. The caregiver, usually the parent, intentionally injures, suffocates, or poisons her child for her own sympathy.