One Last Lookby Linda Lael Miller
Clare Westbrook is a survivor who built her law practice from sheer determination - and an unexpected inheritance. Now Clare, carrying her lover Tony Sonterra's child, has taken the biggest risk of all: saying "yes" to his marriage proposal and finally burying her lifelong commitment phobia. So why is fear running through her veins and haunting her dreams? Sonterra is… See more details below
Clare Westbrook is a survivor who built her law practice from sheer determination - and an unexpected inheritance. Now Clare, carrying her lover Tony Sonterra's child, has taken the biggest risk of all: saying "yes" to his marriage proposal and finally burying her lifelong commitment phobia. So why is fear running through her veins and haunting her dreams? Sonterra is fired up to leave Phoenix for small-town Arizona, to replace the town's missing police chief and target a lethal desert crime ring. Clare's willing to stand by her man, but her fiance won't be the only one flirting with danger on the job: as a special investigator for the D.A.'s office, Clare is plunged into a race to find a missing child whose mother was murdered - a hot case that puts Clare's safety, and that of her unborn child, on the edge. For in a place where secrets have nowhere to hide, the promise of Clare's bright future could vanish in the blink of an eye.
Winter Haven News (FL)
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One Last Look
By Linda Lael Miller
All right reserved.
Pima County Forensic Science Center
The zipper on the body bag caught, and the technician gave it a hard, practiced yank. The stenches of death and the attendant chemicals roiled out of the cavity and, in the moment before Detective Tony Sonterra remembered my presence and eased me back with a slight motion of one elbow, the image of Jimmy's youthful, ravaged face imprinted itself, hologram style, on every cell in my brain.
Bile scalded the roof of my mouth.
My name is Clare Westbrook, and I've seen more than my share of corpses. I seemed to attract them on my own, and my association with Sonterra, who was a homicide cop at the time, merely compounded the problem.
I turned away, doing my best not to retch.
Jorge "Jimmy" Ruiz was sixteen years old. His dreams were heartbreakingly modest -- he'd wanted a car, cheap housing, and a dog that would come when he called it.
Sonterra had befriended the boy eight months before, when he'd turned up in Phoenix, hungry and ingenuous, and wangled a job with Sonterra's family's landscaping business. Customs and Immigration snagged the kid a few weeks after he arrived, during a routine green-card check, and promptly sent him home to Mexico. Sonterra stayed in touch with Jimmy after that, got him a room in Nogales, on the Sonoran side, then pushed up his sleeves and waded into the red-tape matrix. Probably because of his own Hispanic heritage, he'd been determined to make a difference, if only for this one boy.
I loved that about Sonterra, the way he would lock on to an idea if he thought it was right, and never let go. Our relationship was intense, and by no means simple. I'd moved into his house, with my niece, Emma, and our two dogs, Waldo and Bernice, but I still had one foot in my old life. I'd worked hard to get through law school, schlepping drinks at a Tucson bar called Nipples, and later put in my time at Kredd and Associates, where ambulance chasing was a specialty. It had been Emma and me against the world ever since my sister Tracy's sudden disappearance, when Emma was only seven, and when it turned out that my sister had been murdered by someone close to her, my streetwise, foster-kid wariness went into overdrive.
Trusting Sonterra, trusting anyone, was a challenge. Hell, I wasn't even sure I could trust myself.
Now, in the stark reality of cold storage, Sonterra's voice seemed to come through a long, hollow pipe, even though we were within touching distance. "His name was Jorge Ruiz," he told the attendant grimly. "No next of kin."
The tech nodded, blandly accustomed to the unclaimed and unmourned, handed Sonterra a clipboard, watched in silence as he signed off on the attached form. Another body identified. A complex life, reduced to words and numbers. A few check marks, a couple of official signatures, and that's it. Add one more statistic to the column.
I hadn't been well acquainted with Jimmy, but I ached for him, remembering his shy smile, his ragged jeans and T-shirt, his amazing capacity for hard work. I knew he'd slept on a cot on Sonterra's dad's sunporch during his brief stay in the USA, and been pathetically grateful for a place at the kitchen table. He'd loved bologna sandwiches and lime Kool-Aid.
I swayed, gripped the edge of a nearby steel table for balance, and instantly recoiled. The slab was bare, even sterile, but I had a sudden, swift sense of all the bodies that had rested there, for a brief and grisly interval, with only a toe tag to differentiate them from the other vacant shells of humanity that had passed through that place. I'm not exactly squeamish, but I was in a morgue, and four months pregnant.
Kay Scarpetta, I'm not.
Sonterra pressed a hand to the small of my back and steered me toward the exit. Once outside in the corridor, I sank onto a bench and dropped my head between my knees.
"I asked you to wait in the car," Sonterra said with a familiar note of resignation. He waited until I straightened, then handed me a paper cup with a slosh of lukewarm water inside. None of this was new to him -- he'd stood by many times, while a family member identified a victim, and even witnessed autopsies -- but he was clearly shaken.
I gulped down the water, waited to see if my stomach would send it hurtling back up or simply convulse around it with a couple of good clenches. I kept down the first dose, and threw back the rest.
This would cinch it, I thought. Just the day before, Sonterra had fessed up that he'd been offered a job with a federal task force. He'd been closemouthed about the details, but I knew it had something to do with the stream of illegal immigrants flooding in from Mexico. Now, because of Jimmy, he'd accept for sure. Turn his whole life upside down, and mine with it.
"Coyotes," he said. He wasn't referring to the four-legged variety. In cop speak, coyotes are the sleazeball flesh-smugglers who run Mexican nationals across the border, into the land of milk and honey -- for a price. They lock their "clients" up in the trunks of cars, in airless vans, and in "safe houses," sometimes ten to thirty to a room, with little or no food, water, or sunlight. If things go sour in transit, they often shoot them in the head and leave them in the desert for the buzzards. And that's the merciful method. The most common one is dropping them off miles from any road, without their shoes, if they had any in the first place, without water or food or any means to defend themselves. Duct tape and dehydration save on the high cost of bullets. Coyotes are in business to make money, and they do, hand over fist.
Sonterra and I left the building in silence, started across the parking lot toward his slick SUV, gleaming black in the winter sun. That's the reason we Arizonans put up with summer temperatures in the 120-degree range -- for the mellow months between October and April. The door locks popped audibly when he pressed the button on his key fob.
We'd discussed the new job, of course, but it was a source of conflict. It meant leaving the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, where I had friends and a pro bono practice I loved, for a wide spot in the road well off the beaten path. I was familiar with Dry Creek, a dust bunny under the bed of life, because of its proximity with Tucson, my hometown. I'd gone there a lot, as a teenager, admittedly to party with other wild kids, and had always come away with one clear thought: Thank God, I don't live there.
It's ironic how fate keeps track of blithe statements like that one and uses them to slap you in the face. "Does this mean you're going to play ball with the feds and sign on as chief of police in Dry Creek?" The last chief, a man named Oz Gilbride, had disappeared into a parallel universe, a couple of months ago, under a cloud of controversy and suspicion. I remembered Oz from my misspent youth, too. He'd run a lax department, which was why kids from Tucson liked to raise hell in and around his town. Since he'd vanished, the news media had pegged Chief Gilbride as the lead dog in a very bad pack of coyotes, and maybe they were right.
Maybe they were full of bullshit, too.
I'm not a fan of talking heads, lacquered and smiling, assessing the world from behind a news desk. Most of them, in my opinion, could be a little less interested in pursuing their personal political agendas and a lot more interested in telling the truth. It's one thing to alert the population to corporate or government skullduggery, and quite another to back up a truck and dump a load of fear into the collective consciousness just because there's nothing else to talk about on that particular day.
The sky is falling. Film at six.
When Sonterra didn't answer my Dry Creek inquiry right away, I considered switching the subject to lunch, but it didn't seem appropriate, even if it was one-thirty in the afternoon, and we hadn't eaten since before we left his place in Scottsdale that morning.
Still musing, Sonterra opened the passenger door for me and waited until I was settled. His handsome features were set, his jawline hard. "Another couple of months," he reflected, "and he would have been legal. He knew all about coyotes. Why get involved with them again?"
I snapped my seat belt on. Youth is not noted for its patience, and Jimmy Ruiz had been very young. In Mexico, he'd worn discarded clothes and eaten other people's garbage. In the U.S., he'd tasted Big Macs and stepped, goggle-eyed, into the wonderful world of Wal-Mart.
"It's not your fault," I told Sonterra, because I knew that was what he was thinking -- that if he'd done things differently, Jimmy would be alive. Given the singular dangers and depressing nature of Sonterra's work, I thought he was being a little hard on himself.
Sonterra rounded the vehicle, got behind the wheel, cranked on the ignition. Warm air blew from the dashboard, and I felt sweat drying between my breasts and shoulder blades. His right temple pulsed, and he wouldn't look at me. "Damn it," he rasped. "Jimmy was so bright. He could have had a good life. Contributed something."
I reached out, touched his arm. "Let it go. You can't save them all, Sonterra."
"I wasn't trying to save everybody in the world," he retorted, backing out of a parking space marked VISITORS. "I was trying to save Jimmy. One kid."
I withdrew my hand. I was in no position to make speeches -- I knew something about the savior complex myself. After inheriting a shitload of money from the father I never knew, I'd hung out my shingle in the worst part of Phoenix, unofficially adopted one of my first clients, a beautiful young black woman named Shanda Rawlings, given her a job in my storefront office, helped her beat a bad-check rap, and bought her a secondhand car. In a few days, she'd be entering Gateway Community College as a part-time student, financed by a combination of loans and grants. Like any good messiah, I'd offered to pay her tuition fees and provide the books, but she'd refused. Shanda had a lot of pride. She really wanted to build a life for herself and her little girl, Maya, and she had the guts and brains to make it happen.
I couldn't help imagining how I'd feel if she'd been in Jimmy's place, and the image made me shudder.
Sonterra pulled into traffic with a slight screech of rubber. "One kid," he repeated, as the morgue and county hospital fell away behind us.
"I'm sorry," I said. The pit of my stomach quivered with a combination of dread and hunger. When Jimmy was found two days before with four other murder victims, facedown in a gulley outside of Dry Creek, with his hands taped behind him and most of his head blown away, the cops had checked his pockets and found Sonterra's card. They'd called him to make an ID, which was why we were in Tucson that burnished January afternoon. I'd had Shanda reschedule all two of my appointments and insisted on coming along to provide moral support.
I wasn't much help, it seemed to me.
Sonterra's cell phone chirped; he pulled it from his belt, checked the screen, and pressed the talk button with his thumb. "Hi, Dad," he said, weaving through light traffic. Pause. "Yeah. It was Jimmy, all right."
Sonterra listened soberly for a few moments, then answered, "They'll probably donate the remains to the med school."
I cringed. True, science needs bodies. But it's a gruesome concept when the one in question belongs to someone you knew.
"I'll see what I can do," Sonterra went on, after another interval of attentive silence. "You're sure that's what you want?"
I adjusted the air-conditioning. Waited.
I hate waiting.
"All right," Sonterra said finally. "Yeah -- Clare's with me. Hold on." He extended the phone, keeping his gaze on the road, and I took it.
It lifted my spirits just to hear Alex Sonterra's voice. In fact, I felt a welcome, warming rush of affection, a thawing of the marrow-freeze I'd picked up in the morgue. Like I said, I wouldn't have known my own father if I'd met him on the street, and Alex seemed a willing substitute. "Are you okay, Clare?" he asked gently.
Sentiment washed over me, and tears stung my eyes. I sucked it up, because I didn't know how to do anything else. "Yes," I replied. And it was true. I'm nothing if not resilient. Sure, I was stricken over Jimmy's death, but the nausea, a combination of morning sickness and normal revulsion, had passed, and I was thinking about food.
"You keep an eye on Tonio. Make him eat something." Alex let out a long breath. "He's taking this personally."
I nodded, even though Alex couldn't see me. "I know," I said, glancing at Sonterra. "I'll force-feed him if I have to."
Alex chuckled. "Good," he replied.
We said our fare-thee-wells and disconnected. I handed the cell back to Sonterra.
"Dad wants to bury Jimmy up in Phoenix," he said. "Catholic funeral. Family plot. The whole thing." There was a Cracker Barrel coming up on the right side of the street; he flipped on his signal and turned into the restaurant's lot -- bless him. He'd gotten the food reference, then. And he'd probably heard my stomach growling.
"That'll require some paperwork," I replied. I wasn't sure, since I didn't handle immigration cases, but I figured it was safe to assume that the federal, state, and county governments would all want a bureaucratic say in the matter.
"I know a lawyer," Sonterra said, and managed a semblance of a grin. He rarely mentioned my hard-won career, at least in a positive way. He busted the perps, and as a defense attorney, I did my best to get them off. This did not make for domestic tranquillity.
We got out of the rig, and he locked it up again. Inside the restaurant, I made my way through the gift shop, heading for the restroom, while Sonterra approached the hostess for a table. He was on his cell again when I came out, and he cut the call suspiciously short.
My antennae twitched.
"Your dad again?" I asked mildly, when he didn't volunteer anything. It was that cop-lawyer, adversarial thing again. Sonterra and I could blister a mattress, but when it came to just about anything else, we were both pretty careful about showing our cards.
Before he gave up an answer, we were seated, with menus in hand.
"No," Sonterra said. Pulling teeth. That was what it was like, getting information out of him.
A waitress strolled over, ogling Sonterra the way waitresses almost always did. I ordered a BLT with extra mayo, clam chowder, and a side of sweet potatoes, and Sonterra asked for a burger and fries.
"I don't know how you can eat like that," he observed, reaching for the little peg-board game the Cracker Barrel provided to keep hungry customers occupied while the cooks worked their magic behind the scenes.
"I'm pregnant," I reminded him in a righteous and moderately affronted tone.
"Yeah," he said, with another sparing grin. "I was there when it went down." He paused, raised his eyebrows. "So to speak."
Heat flashed through my body. "You were the perpetrator."
He stabbed a green peg into a hole in the game board. "I'm taking the task-force job, Clare," he said.
My spine straightened like a dancing cobra rising out of a basket. As usual, Sonterra was piping the tune. "That means -- "
"It means a leave of absence from Scottsdale PD," he interrupted, looking directly into my eyes for the first time since we'd left the morgue. "It means cleaning out a den of coyotes."
"Noble, but it won't bring Jimmy back," I insisted, thinking of my niece, Emma, my best friends, Loretta Matthews and Mrs. Kravinsky, and my practice. If Sonterra moved to Dry Creek, a polyp forty miles up the intestines of Creation, I would have to make a drastic choice. Go with him, or stay.
"No," Sonterra agreed, and waited out the food-service professional when she returned with our iced teas, lingered a little too long, and finally left. "Jimmy's gone. But I might be able to keep this from happening to somebody else."
"Get real, Sonterra," I replied, though not unkindly. I knew he was hurting, and I cared. Four months ago, he'd asked me to marry him -- before he knew I was carrying his baby -- and I'd said yes. I was wearing his late mother's diamond ring on my left hand. Damn straight I cared, even if I had been dragging my feet a little about setting an actual date to walk down the aisle. "These guys are like mushroom spores. Coyotes, I mean. Pull one up by the roots, and a hundred more spring out of the manure overnight."
Sonterra spread his hands, and his right temple pulsed. "Oh, well then," he said. "Let's just roll over and let them keep right on killing people!"
Two elderly couples, obviously tourists, eyed us warily from the next table. I half expected them to jump up in unison, make a dash for the old Winnebago, and lay rubber out of there.
"You've got to choose your battles," I argued, in a whisper, and slurped up some iced tea. I guess I thought that would make us seem more normal. Oh, that's all right then, I imagined the retirees thinking to themselves. They're talking about murder, but they're drinking iced tea, so they must be all right.
"Yeah," Sonterra agreed tersely, "and it would be nice if half of those battles weren't with you!"
I leaned in a little. "Pull in your horns, Sonterra. I'm on your side."
"Prove it," he challenged.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the Winnebago crowd had lost interest in our little drama.
"Oh," I said, keeping my voice down anyway, "now we get to the old if-you-love-me-you'll-do-what-I-tell-you routine?"
Sonterra stuck another peg in the board, hard. "Call it whatever you want," he shot back. "You'll put your own spin on anything I say, anyway."
I puffed out a breath and sat back in my chair. The waitress brought our food on a tray, giving me a moderately censorious glance as she set the chowder, sweet potatoes, and BLT down in front of me. Sonterra got a sympathetic sigh along with his lunch.
Bitch, I thought, without much rancor. If I actively hated every woman who felt sorry for Sonterra because he'd hooked up with me, I'd be one big ulcer by now. Besides, I was more interested in the sweet potatoes.
"Are you coming with me or not?" Sonterra asked, in a tight voice, after munching a french fry.
I guess I could have pretended I thought he was talking about the ride back to Scottsdale, but it would have been bullshit. "What would I do in Dry Creek?"
"Relax a little, maybe. You're expecting a baby, remember?"
My temper flared. Sonterra wanted me to veg. Hang out at home, watch daytime TV. Knit booties. Sounded like a prescription for brain rot to me.
"Barefoot and pregnant," I said, aggrieved.
Sonterra swore under his breath.
I lost interest in the sweet potatoes. Then and there, I decided that, if I did go to Dry Creek with Sonterra, I would either start another law office or find myself a job in Tucson.
The Winnebago people pushed back their chairs and stood up to leave, chatting amiably about the next destination. Sedona or Santa Fe? Decisions, decisions.
I watched as one of the men dropped a few dollar bills in the middle of the table for a tip. His wife paused beside my chair, her eyes earnest behind her old-fashioned glasses, and for a moment, I thought she was about to ask if I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.
She laid a hand on my shoulder. "He looks like a very nice, steady young man," she said, referring, I assumed, to Sonterra, and not Jesus. "Give him a chance."
With that, she trundled away after the other members of her group.
Sonterra chuckled. "Good advice," he said, looking bleakly smug.
"Shut up," I replied, but I couldn't help grinning.
His cell phone blipped. He sighed, checked the caller ID, and frowned. "Sonterra," he said.
I watched his face change. Dark clouds gathering over an uneasy sea.
A little trill of fear shimmied up my windpipe.
"What?" I mouthed.
Sonterra shook his head, listening intently. Finally, he said, "I'm in Tucson. I'll be there as soon as I can." Still on the phone, he signaled the waitress for the check. Clearly, lunch was over. "Tell him to hold on." He waited. "I don't care if he's unconscious. Tell him anyway."
Copyright © 2006 by Linda Lael Miller
Excerpted from One Last Look by Linda Lael Miller Copyright © 2006 by Linda Lael Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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