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Sorenson: THE EDGE OF NIGHT
TIn the city of Chula Vista, freshly tagged walls were a common sight.
The densely populated area, sandwiched between downtown San Diego and uptown Tijuana, was so close to the border it was practically in Mexico. Half of the billboard ads that sprawled above the crowded streets were in Spanish. Although the city’s name translated literally as “beautiful view,” most of its neighborhoods boasted quite the opposite. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, the air shimmered with heat and exhaust fumes. A thin layer of grime coated every road sign.
From where Officer Noah Young sat, in the passenger side of a patrol car, the only view was of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
And wall-to-wall graffiti.
Noah deciphered the newly painted messages with an almost subconscious ease, drumming his fingertips against his thigh. It was only his second year on the gang unit and his fifth as a patrol officer, but already he understood the symbols better than his partner, Senior Officer Patrick Shanley, did. Patrick had spent almost three decades on the Chula Vista Police Department and still hadn’t bothered to learn Spanish, either.
While they waited for the light to change, Noah moved his gaze to the sidewalk, scanning pedestrians for illegal activity.
About a hundred feet ahead, two dark-haired boys climbed over the top of a chain-link fence and dropped down to the pavement below. The fence surrounded an old elementary school, long closed. It was now an active gang hideout.
The boys noticed the patrol car at the same time. Exchanging a worried glance, they started to walk in the opposite direction, shoulders together, heads down.
Noah guessed they were about eight or nine. Too young to be unsupervised, old enough to get in trouble. “Pull over.”
Patrick shot him an impatient look. “For a couple of taggers?”
“They aren’t taggers.” It wouldn’t have surprised him if they were, because he’d seen kindergartners with spray cans, but neither of these boys had a backpack. Their attitudes didn’t necessarily imply guilt, either. There were plenty of other reasons to be wary of cops in this area. Legal status, cultural attitudes, general distrust.
“Just give me a minute,” he said anyway.
With a show of reluctance, Patrick sounded the siren and jerked the car to a halt at the curb. Noah expected the kids to bolt, so he didn’t waste time. He hopped out and caught up with them in three long strides, giving them no opportunity to run.
“Esperanse, por favor,” he said, holding his palm up.
The boys stopped and looked at him, feet shuffling on the hot sidewalk. Twin sets of brown eyes darted toward the squad car, the busy street, the chain-link fence. Their features were so similar, they had to be brothers.
“Adónde van?” Noah asked.
“To the market,” the older boy said, his tone full of pride and contempt. I speak English, asshole.
Noah smiled in understanding. His Spanish was good and getting better every day, but it would never be perfect. He preferred to do interviews in English. “Why did you cut through the old schoolyard?”
“To save time.”
He directed his next question to the younger boy, because he looked more frightened and less inclined to lie. “What did you see back there?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“Nothing,” his brother prompted, elbowing him in the ribs.
“Nada,” he mumbled, shifting from one foot to the other.
At six foot two, Noah was too tall to look this little kid in the eye. So he braced his hands on his knees and crouched down, level with him. The boy’s gaze was filled with trepidation. “What did you see?”
“A woman,” he whispered.
A chill traveled along Noah’s spine. “Was she pretty?”
The kid’s face paled. He made a gurgling sound, low in his throat. Noah jumped back in just enough time to avoid having his shoes splattered by what appeared to be a regurgitated orange Popsicle.
“Where is she?” Noah asked the older brother, feeling his own stomach lurch.
“By the stairs.”
Patrick must have decided the impromptu shakedown had merit, because he left the comfort of the air-conditioned cruiser. Noah didn’t agree with all of his partner’s personal philosophies, but he appreciated his professional support.
On the street, they had each other’s back.
Noah gestured for Patrick to keep an eye on the boys as he passed by. He climbed the fence quickly, taking care not to snag his gun belt on the chain link, and dropped down to the other side. He’d patrolled the area before, so he was familiar with its basic layout. The classrooms were housed in individual one-story buildings, low to the ground and evenly spaced. This kind of design was typical for schools in Southern California.
Right now, in early August, it was a blazing ninety-five degrees. Sweat trickled between Noah’s shoulder blades, dampening his undershirt. His CVPD uniform was dark blue, and the heavy fabric seemed to suck up sun and hold in heat.
A slight breeze ruffled the short hair at the nape of his neck as he stepped into the shaded walkway and waited a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the light.
The stairs were at the end of the walkway, between two administrative buildings. A fenced-in parking lot on the other side of the buildings was most likely the juveniles’ point of entry. His rubber-soled shoes made very little sound as he advanced.
Every wall he passed was covered with graffiti. Because the area was so private and the artists had all the time in the world, many of the images were painstakingly detailed. Noah recognized some of the work by style alone. One prolific tagger, who signed all of his pieces with a cryptic lowercase e, could have made a decent living by painting murals or designing graphics for T-shirts.
Instead, he used his talent to destroy county property.
Noah ignored the colorful designs and focused on the shadowed walkway, making steady progress. The uneasy feeling he’d had since catching a glimpse of those scared-eyed juveniles dogged his every step.
What was waiting for him at the end of the staircase?
Noah unsnapped his gun holster and flexed his fingers, letting his right hand hover above his Glock. Judging by the kids’ reactions and the vomit on the sidewalk, he was about to encounter a dead body.
As he reached the top of the stairs, a pair of shoes came into view. Black canvas flats. Size six or seven, women’s.
Noah’s gut twisted at the sight. His little sister wore shoes like that.
The rest of the body was blocked by the side of the building, but he could tell she was lying on her back, motionless.
He kept his hand near his gun. “Ma’am?”
No response. Not even a twitch.
Noah descended the steps, his pulse racing. After taking a quick survey of the surroundings to make sure he was alone, he returned his gaze to the fallen woman. And sucked in a sharp, painful breath.
Her legs were bare, her denim skirt shoved up to her waist. She was brutally exposed. A torn flannel shirt hung from her slim torso, and strands of long black hair snaked across her neck. A clear plastic bag, the implement of her death, covered her face. Her mouth was open, frozen in a silent scream.
The killer had watched her suffocate while he raped her.
Noah turned away from the gruesome sight, swallowing hard. His eyes watered and his hands clenched into fists.
Most of the dead bodies he’d seen weren’t homicide victims. He’d stumbled across a few homeless guys lying in their own waste. Drunk drivers sandwiched inside wrecked vehicles. He’d encountered bloated corpses and burned flesh.
As a gang unit cop, he’d also assisted in a number of murder investigations, of course. Gang members killed other gang members on a regular basis. It was tragic but not unexpected. Violent men met violent ends.
This was different. More twisted, more disturbing.
Killing a rival gang member was wrong. Raping and strangling an innocent young woman was . . . evil.
The radio at Noah’s waist signaled, startling him. “Officer Young, Code Four,” Patrick said. It was a basic status inquiry.
“Code Five,” he replied, his voice hoarse with emotion. He glanced at the victim and cleared his throat, trying to toughen up. “We have a DB, Hispanic female, teens or twenties.” There was a small purse lying on the concrete beside her, but Noah didn’t touch it. “This one is for Santiago; over.”
Victor Santiago was the lead homicide detective in the department. Patrick’s former partner and current nemesis.
“We’ve got a 187?” Patrick asked.
“And 261,” Noah replied.
Patrick was silent for a moment. There was no more heinous crime than rape/murder, unless it also involved a child. Noah wasn’t sure it didn’t, in this case. The plastic bag partially obscured the girl’s face, and he could only guess her age.
“Copy that,” Patrick said, signing off to call dispatch.
For an indeterminable period, Noah stood guard over the body. He knew he should try to analyze clues and search for motives, but his mind was reeling. He also felt unsteady on his feet. The best he could manage was to stay put and not compromise the scene.
After a couple of slow, deep breaths, he pulled himself together enough to study his surroundings. The abandoned buildings were a perfect meeting place for petty criminals, and Noah knew that gang members frequented the location. There were several easy lookouts and even more dark corners to hide in.
A crouching assailant could wait in the shadows, unseen.
The wall behind the victim was marked CVL #1, a common tag in this neighborhood. The Chula Vista Locos had claimed the schoolyard, and many nearby locations, as their turf. They were the most prominent gang in the city.
Noah returned his gaze to the body, forcing himself to evaluate any visible evidence. Her face was contorted, her hair tangled and dark. She was slim but not undeveloped. Her frame was slender, like a teenager’s. Her clothes looked cheap.
Poorly made, easily torn.
She didn’t have any defensive wounds, from what he could tell, but her arms and legs were riddled with tiny red sores. They appeared to be self-inflicted, possibly from compulsive scratching. It was an ugly side effect of several different street narcotics, including rock cocaine and crystal meth.
The signs of addiction—and adulthood—didn’t ease the tension in Noah’s stomach. Drug abuse was a risky behavior, like prostitution, and perhaps it had made this particular victim vulnerable to attack. But there was nothing she could have done to justify her killing. No one deserved to die like this.
Within moments, a county medical examiner, a crime scene photographer, and evidence technicians descended on the scene. The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. Noah continued to stand watch, partly because he was like a sponge, absorbing different procedures and techniques, but also because he felt protective of the victim. Through no fault of her own, she’d been violated and left like trash, her young life taken too soon.
He wanted her to be treated with the utmost respect.
When one of the homicide detectives zipped up the body bag carefully, Noah felt his shoulders relax. Detective Victor Santiago appeared before him. “A couple of juveniles reported her?”
“Not exactly, sir,” Noah said, giving Santiago his full attention. “I saw them climbing over the fence and pursued.”
Santiago was about Patrick’s age—and his polar opposite. Patrick’s blond hair was so short and sparse it looked white. Of sturdy Irish stock, Shanley was florid, heavyset, and outspoken. A big man with a big mouth.
In contrast, Santiago had a quiet strength that Noah admired more. He was dark-haired and olive-skinned. Although his clunky glasses made him look like an academic and he stood several inches shorter than Noah, he exuded a strong presence. He didn’t use words or gestures to excess, nor did he carry an extra ounce of weight.
He also ran a crack team, and Noah wanted to be on it.
Patrick, who had assisted in securing the scene, eased up beside Noah.
Santiago looked back and forth between them. “Is that what you do on GU these days? Chase down little boys?”
“At least we chase down somebody,” Patrick replied, tugging on his gun belt. With his considerable bulk, he couldn’t catch a toddler. “Hard to do that from behind a desk.”
Santiago ignored the gibe. Homicide detectives spent a lot of time in the office, but they also held the most demanding, most prestigious positions in the department. “Why’d you stop them?” he asked Noah.
Noah frowned, trying to pinpoint a particular reason. “I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “They just looked scared.”
Santiago’s dark eyes were cool, assessing. Noah wished he’d thought of something more specific to say. “Victim is Lola Sanchez, age twenty-three,” Santiago said, handing him a driver’s license in a plastic bag. “Seen her around?”
Noah studied the pretty face in the photo. “No,” he said, passing it to Patrick.
“She had some paraphernalia in her purse,” Santiago continued. “You know a dealer who hangs out here?”
“No one comes here but CVL,” Patrick asserted, returning the license to Santiago. “And kids too stupid to know better.”
“I’m going to need your unit to assist,” Santiago said. “We found a card in her wallet for Club Suave. The manager says she worked there. Had a shift last night.”
Noah blinked a few times in surprise. He couldn’t believe Santiago would let them in on such a high-profile investigation. This was, by far, the most vicious crime he’d ever seen. His pulse quickened at the thought of catching the sick bastard who did it. He’d never been more eager to be a part of a case.
Patrick merely waited for instructions, unmoved.
“Interview her coworkers. Get surveillance tapes. I want to know what her gang connections are, who she was dating, and if she left with someone last night.”
“Yes, sir,” Noah said, his shoulders straight.
Santiago waved them away.
After a final glance at the small figure in the zippered bag, Noah walked toward the chain-link fence with Patrick. It had been clipped for easier access. They passed through the opening, made their way down the street, and climbed into the patrol car.
“Do you have to kiss his ass?” Patrick asked.
“Do you have to piss him off?” Noah shot back.
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Noah understood that Patrick felt threatened by Santiago and chalked it up to professional rivalry. Patrick’s career had stalled, while Santiago had moved up—way up—in the ranks.
Noah wanted to take the same direction in the department, and he wasn’t going to let Patrick, or anything else, get in his way. The gang unit saw a lot of action, and he was in good shape. Unlike Patrick, he could win a footrace with any criminal on the street. He also enjoyed interacting with juveniles, having a visible presence in the community, and keeping the neighborhoods safe.
But what Noah loved most was solving puzzles. He’d excelled in Spanish and deciphering tag signs, perhaps because both languages had a discrete set of rules and symbols, pieces that fit together to create meaning.
He hoped these strengths would translate well to homicide. Noah planned to apply to that unit in a few short months, after completing the required five years on patrol.
And Patrick knew it.
“Well,” his disgruntled partner said at last, “I guess it’s no hardship to interview the girls at Suave.”
Noah smiled wryly. Club Suave used to be a strip joint. Now, due to licensing issues and zoning laws, it was just a popular singles bar. From what he’d heard, the music was loud, the drinks were cheap, and the waitresses wore very little.
“No hardship at all,” he murmured, staring out the passenger window. During the past few minutes, darkness had settled over the city.