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John McAllister slid behind the wheel of his black Jeep Wrangler feeling grateful for beautiful women, strong coffee, and clean getaways.
Swigging caffeine, he sped away from the Stop-N-Go parking lot and tried to decide which route to the newspaper office would make him the least late for work. Fortunately, Melanie -- or was it Mallory? -- lived in one of the nicer parts of town, not far from the business district where the Mayfield Gazette was headquartered. John had left her bed moments ago, jotted a quick note, and heard her shuffling in the bedroom as he'd slipped out the front door. He didn't like mornings after, and the combination of too much tequila and not enough sleep had made this one a narrow escape.
John glanced in the backseat, and, hot damn, his luck was holding. The dry cleaning he'd picked up on his way to happy hour yesterday hadn't been stolen, rained on, or mutilated in the bar parking lot or Melinda's -- that was her name -- driveway. If he avoided traffic snarls and changed shirts on the fly, he might actually show his face at the staff meeting before it adjourned.
As he pulled up to a stoplight, John stripped off the T-shirt he'd worn last night. He ripped open the plastic dry cleaning bag, shrugged into a crisp white shirt, and buttoned up. He was about to unzip his jeans and tuck in the shirttail when he noticed the young brunette in the red Mustang convertible pulled up beside him. Her mouth hung open as she stared at him with naked admiration. It was a look he usually enjoyed, but the light had turned green, so he settled for giving the woman a friendly wink before shifting into gear.
Mayfield had a lot going for it. Warm weather. Hot women. A fresh flock of tourists migrating to the beaches every summer. The sun wouldn't hit full, skin-scorching intensity for a few hours yet, and on mornings like this, John was almost glad he lived here. Almost. If it weren't for the increasingly serious shit going down along the border, this place would be paradise.
As he shifted into fourth, he heard the familiar howl of an approaching police cruiser. Check that -- two police cruisers. Check that -- three or more.
What the fuck? John pulled over and watched five black-and-whites race by. In the distance he heard yet another emergency vehicle, this one coming from the direction of the closest fire station.
John followed in the cruisers' wake, cursing himself for leaving his police scanner on his desk overnight. His editor would be pissed. His only shot at redemption would be getting whatever this story was and hoping nothing important had transpired last night while he was burning up the sheets with Melinda.
The cruisers turned down a street lined with King palms and, set farther back from the curb, expensive brickand-stucco homes. This was an upscale neighborhood, and many of the houses had waterfront views, three-car garages, and boat slips. Whatever this emergency was, it wasn't your typical liquor store holdup.
The police cars screeched to a halt in front of a white stucco residence, and five pairs of officers hopped out, guns drawn.
John parked across the street from the house, a Mexican-style three-story with a red tile roof. A gray Volvo SUV was parked in the driveway with one of the back passenger doors open. The cops surrounded it. John climbed out of his Jeep and saw a young officer -- the first responder, most likely -- already kneeling on the driveway next to, holy shit, a body. It looked like a woman in a dark dress, but it was hard to tell for sure. A pool of blood surrounded the mutilated mass that had once been her head.
John scanned the area for any sign of the gunman, but all he saw were neighbors in bathrobes and warm-ups who had been lured outside by the commotion. Not far up the block, a silver-haired man with a Chihuahua bouncing around his ankles talked to a cop and gestured wildly down the street. John caught the words "black Hummer" and "bat outta hell." His gaze shifted back to the Volvo. A spray of bullet holes perforated the rear fender.
Shit, a drive-by.
In this neighborhood? This wasn't gang-on-gang violence. More like someone gunning down a judge or a city official. Not that most city officials lived around here. The mayor had some money, but even he lived several streets over.
John caught the neighbor's eye. "Hey, you know who lives here?"
The cop glared at him, but Chihuahua Guy was eager to help out. "The Prices," he said. "Pam and Barry."
"Thanks." John walked off before the cop could get territorial.
Pamela Price. The assistant U.S. attorney was currently prosecuting some midlevel members of the Saledo drug cartel. Her murder would spook every law enforcement official in the Rio Grande Valley.
A shrieking ambulance skidded to a halt in front of the house, and two paramedics dashed up the driveway. John approached the crime scene, which was already being secured by several uniforms with rolls of yellow tape. As John watched the paramedics kneel down beside the victim, he realized she wasn't alone. Lying next to her, in a second pool of blood, was another body.
A little boy. In blood-covered overalls.
Beside the back tire lay a blue-and-red Spider-Man backpack. Pamela Price must have been buckling her kid into his car seat when the Hummer came by, and the fuckers had shot them both.
One of the medics strapped an oxygen mask over the boy's face while the other scrambled to stanch the bleeding. Blood was everywhere, turning the paramedics' latex gloves scarlet and forming an ever- expanding puddle around the mother and child.
John's stomach turned. He spotted a cluster of trash cans and raced over just in time to puke his guts up. He crouched down, leaning a hand against the neighbor's house. The smell of vomit and garbage filled his nostrils, and the humidity closed in on him. He was going to hurl again if he didn't get some air.
A low hedge separated the Prices' property from their neighbors'. John walked into the adjacent backyard and plunked himself down on a patio chair in front of a weathered boathouse. He took a deep breath and tried to spit out the vile taste in his mouth.
Damn, what was wrong with him? He'd covered the crime beat for nearly a decade now. He'd been to countless homicide scenes; he'd seen corpses.
He thought of the Spidey backpack and shuddered. He needed a cigarette.
Something mewed, and John glanced around, expecting a cat. No cat, but the noise continued, growing louder every second. The mewing gave way to something vaguely human, and John stood up. Low, keening noises were coming from the boathouse.
The tide was out, and the wooden decking surrounding the boat slip stood several feet out of the water. Four pilings supported the structure, which had a sundeck on top. The boat slip was empty except for two nylon straps flapping in the wind.
A flash of pink behind the nearest piling caught his eye.
"Hello?" he called.
The noises stopped. John glimpsed some brown hair a few feet off the ground. A child.
He stepped closer. "Anyone there?"
The hair didn't belong to a child, but to a doll. The doll came into view and, attached to it, the white-knuckled hand of a little girl. She was slack-jawed, trembling, and staring at John with huge brown eyes. Her little body was shaking so violently, the doll looked like it was having a seizure.
It took him a second to notice the blood splatters all over her pink dress. He rushed forward.
"Are you hurt?"
She lurched back, nearly falling off the dock.
He didn't want to scare her into the bay. Slowly this time, he stepped toward her. She stepped back again, not even noticing she was inches from the edge.
Could she swim? He had no fucking idea. She looked about four, maybe a tall three. She was about the same height as one of his nieces, and she had long brown pigtails. He studied the blood on her dress. It didn't seem to be coming from her. More likely it was her mother's blood, or her brother's.
What should he do here? He knew jack shit about kids.
He needed to get help. But what if she fell in while he was gone? What if she couldn't swim? What if that wasn't her mother's blood and this girl was injured?
She moved closer to the piling, wrapping an arm around it and squeezing her eyes shut. She started the freaky animal sound again.
Cautiously, he stepped onto the dock. A plank creaked under his foot, and her eyes flew open. She looked at him, then over his shoulder at what was probably her house. John hoped she didn't have a line of sight to the ambulance.
She clutched the doll closer to her chest.
He'd seen the doll before, or something like it, at his sister's place. His niece's doll carried around a purple backpack and spoke Spanish. What the hell was its name? Dyna. Dyna the Adventurer or something like that.
"Is that...Dora you've got there?" Dora the Explorer. Damn, he'd pulled that out of his ass.
She looked from him to the doll and nodded. The noise stopped.
John crouched down. "My niece has a doll like that. Her name's Hannah. What's your name?"
She didn't answer. But she didn't move toward the water, either, so he took that as encouragement. Sweat slid down his temples, and his jeans and boots were streaked with vomit. He probably looked pretty frightening to this kid.
John whirled around. A cop was jogging toward him, reaching for his holster. John held up his hand.
"Don't come closer!"
The cop drew his gun anyway. John darted a look at the girl. Her eyes bugged out, and a trickle of fluid ran down her leg. She started keening again.
"You're scaring her!" John yelled. "Put that away! Please? I think she's hurt, and I'm trying to get her off this dock."
The cop hesitated a moment, then holstered the weapon. But the kid still looked terrified, and John wanted the cop out of her sight.
"We need a paramedic," John told him.
He wanted the officer to trot back to the house to get one, but instead he said something into his radio and stayed right where he was, his hand twitching on his holster. John didn't blame him. If he'd come upon a strange man and a freaked-out little girl at a murder scene, he probably would have done the same thing.
John took a deep breath and held out his hand to the kid. "Can you and Dora come closer?"
She shook her head.
Shit. But okay. Communication was good. He beckoned her with his fingers. "Please? See, that's some deep water there, and I'm worried you might fall in. Maybe Dora can't swim."
She glanced from him to her doll and back to him again. John blinked the sweat out of his eyes.
She stepped forward.
He nodded slightly, and she took another step. She wore black shoes with silver buckles and lacy white socks. Her socks and shoes were splattered with some sort of bloody tissue.
John snapped his gaze back to her face. He held his breath.
She took another step. She stretched out her hand.
John took it. And something twisted inside his chest as her cold, clammy little fingers closed around his own.
Copyright © 2008 by Laura Griffin