Private Investigator Hera Hunter struggled to control the rage erupting in the pit of her stomach. She took a slow, deep breath. And then another. She’d learned the trick during two stints as a Marine Corp sniper. Never allow your emotions to interfere with an assignment, her commanding officer had scolded. The distraction could cause her to miss the target. Even worse, it could get her killed.
She continued the slow, deep breaths until calm returned. Then she again focused her binoculars toward the clearing on a distant hill. Rye Dawson stood upon the summit of the main trail in Bentley State Park, an area of pine forest and small lakes that lay just south of the city of Centreville. Although he was alone, his lips moved. He appeared to be singing.
It was the singing that aroused her ire. An innocent young girl lay dead in the ground by his hand. Her parents still mourned, for they would never know the pride of watching their only child receive her high school diploma, or the joy of holding a grandchild in their arms. They’d never again feel the warmth and satisfaction of a family Thanksgiving dinner.
Yet the psychopath who had diminished their lives forever was free to enjoy the amenities of a state park on a crisp sunny fall day, breathing in air made fresh by morning dew and slightly scented with the mint of dittany leaves. And he was singing as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Singing! The injustice of the situation made Hera’s blood boil.
Rye Dawson hiked this trail every Sunday morning, always arriving at the park around daybreak. He then traversed the four-mile loop at a steady pace, taking an hour and fifteen minutes to finish. Never more and never less.
He was a man of short height and unremarkable looks. An ordinary man with powerful desires that he either could not or would not tame. This morning he wore tan cargo pants, a dark brown hoodie, and a down vest the color of a fine cabernet. As usual, he had a Browning BAR Lightweight Stalker rifle strapped over his shoulder, even though hunting within the park was strictly forbidden.
Two months ago, Rye Dawson stood trial for the murder of Jeannette Moreno, a high school senior with whom he’d been having phone sex after selecting her from an internet dating site. One evening the previous winter, she’d told her parents she was meeting a friend for pizza and a movie. They never saw her alive again.
Five weeks after her disappearance, two hikers found her lifeless body in a ravine along the dirt road that led to Chandler Lake. She left behind a record of calls on her cell phone that revealed her involvement with Dawson, his DNA all over her remains, and his heirloom watch grasped within her hand.
After the jury failed to agree on a verdict, Dawson was released from jail. The following day the online social networks burst into rumors of jury tampering; the Centreville Times, the city’s leading newspaper, vowed to look into the background and finances of the lone juror who found Dawson innocent of the crime; and District Attorney Ray Burke swore he would retry the man who killed Jeannette Moreno.
The case languished. Police Chief Bull Hardington declared his homicide detectives could find no new evidence relating to the murder that might bolster the prosecution’s case. But everyone knew his investigators had been diverted to the suspicious death of a city councilman, a man of wealth and influence, leaving few resources available for a girl of humble means. District Attorney Burke avoided any questions about the girl’s case. Only the Centreville Times continued its call for justice on behalf of Jeannette Moreno.
These events provoked Hera this Sunday morning into crouching behind a boulder fifty feet off the main trail in Bentley State Park. She glanced at her watch and noted that it would take another fifteen minutes for Rye Dawson to come within range of her rifle. So she stretched her strong five-foot nine-inch frame along the ground and pulled from her coat pocket an apple she’d grabbed off the dining table that morning while rushing out of her apartment. She’d been running late since she awoke and had no time for her usual breakfast of bacon and eggs.
The wind kicked up, bringing along a chill. She adjusted the hood of her coat over her long chestnut hair to keep her head warm. Then she quietly ate the apple while she watched a Red-tailed Hawk gliding on the thermals above the southern hills. It banked and circled back. Apparently spotting its prey, the hawk charged toward the earth and disappeared behind the tall white pines that populated the slopes of the nearest mound.
The crackling sound of footsteps on gravel drew Hera’s attention. She heeded the noise, trying to locate its source. Someone was hiking toward her along the pebbled trail at a determined pace, approaching from the opposite direction as Dawson.
“Darn it!” she whispered. The sun had barely risen so she wasn’t expecting company this far from the start of the trail. She had hoped to finish her business before the usual load of runners and hikers arrived at the park. She wrapped the unfinished apple in a small plastic bag and slipped the package into her coat pocket.
She grabbed the rifle that she’d laid upon the boulder and brought it to the ground where it couldn’t be seen. Then she crouched low and pressed her body against the rock as the hiker passed by on the trail.
She heard uneven footsteps. The lengthy stride followed by a quick step was a familiar gait. She waited until the hiker moved far enough away that the sounds of her movements wouldn’t be heard. Then she peeked over the boulder and recognized the gangly frame and tousled brown hair of Stephen Moreno, Jeannette’s father. When he turned his head slightly, the prominent Roman nose that characterized the man’s face confirmed his identity.
He continued on, unaware of her presence, moving surprisingly fast for a man who had permanently wrecked his knee in a high school football game. His right hand hung at his side. In it, he held a revolver.
Hera realized that Moreno had come to the park for the same purpose as she: to end the life of his daughter’s killer. She grabbed the binoculars and scanned the trail ahead for Dawson. She found him a hundred yards away, moving steadily at a moderate clip toward Jeannette’s father.
Moreno must have seen Dawson, too, because he rushed into a clump of red maples, where the dense foliage provided some amount of cover. He lifted the revolver before him and aimed it at the trail. Then he waited.
Even a pro drew poor odds on shooting a moving target with a revolver, and Stephen Moreno knew little about guns of any type. Rye Dawson, on the other hand, was the pride of the local shooting clubs.
Dawson turned a bend in the trail, heedless of the danger hiding in the trees ahead of him. Moreno fired the gun. Hera couldn’t tell where the bullet landed, but it didn’t hit Dawson, who froze in midstep. He glanced around, his face a mask of uncertainty.
Hera knew how the situation would now unfold. Dawson was a killer. If she failed to act quickly, another member of the Moreno family would die. She steadied the rifle against the boulder and trained its front and rear sights on the side of Dawson’s head.
Moreno fired a second shot, and again he missed. The bullet hit a tree about ten feet from its target. A chunk of its brown bark arced through the air.
Dawson howled with rage at the attack. He pulled the BAR Lightweight Stalker off his shoulder and sprinted toward the trees where his assailant stood.
Moreno fired a third and fourth time in quick succession. Still, to no avail.
Hera watched Dawson’s approach through the sights of her rifle. Given the way he held his weapon, she thought he intended to beat his assailant with it. He’d gotten within thirty feet of Moreno when she pressed her finger against the trigger.
Dawson’s head jerked to the side. His body twisted as he fell to the ground.
She didn’t wait around to learn his fate. During her time as a Marine Corp sniper, she never once failed a mission. She knew Rye Dawson was dead.
She enabled the rifle’s safety and grabbed the spent shell off the ground. Then she lay the rifle along the side of her body and held it there, hidden beneath her long coat. She avoided the trail, not wanting to be seen by others who might describe her to the police. Instead, she entered the pine woods where the soft carpet of fallen needles told no tale of her passing.
She’d done what she’d come to do: she’d brought justice to Jeannette Moreno, and she’d given the girl’s family closure and peace of mind. And she’d ensured that the girl’s father lived another day.
Late that evening, Hera sat at a table in the Grotto, the newest of the watering holes popping up along northern Central Avenue. The pub was so loud with intermingling conversations that she squirmed in her seat trying to catch a word or two of her friend Gwendolyn Oates’s chatter. Gwen didn’t seem to notice the noise, or that she was essentially talking to herself.
Lucky, Hera’s small black and tan dog, uttered a low growl. He lay in her lap, his head held high and his ears perked. She thought the racket might be bothering him so she pulled her coat off the back of her chair and coiled it around him, hoping that the thick wall of wool fabric might deaden some of the noise.
The tavern lived up to its name. The room was small and dark and lined with man-made boulders along the walls, many of which served as tables. Overhead, fake stalactites protruded a foot or two from the high ceiling. In one corner water traveled over the sculpted rocks just below the ceiling, then fell into a pool below. The splashing water added to the din and scented the air with an earthy bouquet.
The chairs were crammed so close together that whenever Hera moved her arms, her elbows poked the young man at the next table. But he was so engaged with his friends, laughing and howling and popping up and down in his seat, that he didn’t feel the assault.
Hera wanted to run. She needed fresh air and a moment of peace. But Gwen preferred to do her drinking at establishments that were crowded and noisy, and Hera accommodated her.
Gwen leaned toward her friend and said, “Isn’t this a great place? It’s only been open two weeks, and it’s already popular with the in-crowd.”
“It’s definitely vibrant,” Hera said. They were the kindest words she could think of.
She sipped her beer and frowned at the gentleman ten feet away who’d been staring at her for the last fifteen minutes. He sat with a group of men and women who’d pushed two tables together to provide enough seating for themselves. They looked like business colleagues, and except for her admirer, they were all talking at once. Nobody appeared to be listening.
The gentleman staring at her had a square face, unnaturally white teeth, and hair slicked back with gel. He wore a dark suit with a pink vest and tie. In the dim light, she couldn’t distinguish the suit’s color, but it was either brown or dark blue and expensive, given its tailoring. When he smiled at her, she averted her gaze since he was far too pretty for her taste in men.
“There’s Johnny,” Gwen cried out.
“Johnny!” she screamed above the racket, causing half the room to turn in their direction. Lucky jumped to his feet and nervously looked around for impending danger. Hera stroked his back to calm him.
Gwen abandoned her chair and began squeezing herself through the standing crowds, advancing toward the front door. She was a cat burglar by trade. She specialized in separating precious paintings from their wealthy owners, most of whom occupied the top floors of high-rise condominium buildings. She was petite and fit and stronger than most men Hera knew. Her shapely figure and smooth milky complexion and her copper hair and big green eyes attracted the opposite sex like house mice drawn to a discarded chunk of cheese. The standing groups of men readily stepped aside to let her through, their eyes following her as she passed by.
Gwen frequently fell in love. Hera tired of her friend’s endless succession of suitors. But she wouldn’t tell her that. So Hera sipped her beer and petted Lucky while she waited for Gwen to emerge from the growing crowd at the door with her latest conquest in tow.
She didn’t wait long. “Where’s Johnny?” she asked when Gwen returned to her seat. “I thought you wanted me to meet him.”
“I did,” Gwen said. “But he left. He has to work tonight.”
“What kind of work does he do?”
“He drives a delivery truck.”
Hera glanced at her watch. It read twenty minutes past ten. “It seems a little odd to be making deliveries now,” she said. “Not many businesses are open this late at night.”
“That’s what I thought, but I didn’t want to question him.”
“I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him.”
Hera nodded. But she wondered if Gwen had reason to distrust Johnny. She sipped her beer and glanced around the room. The gentleman who’d been staring at her earlier now stood by the back wall with his arm around a pretty blonde’s waist. Close to the door the tavern’s bartender leaned on the counter while talking to an elegantly dressed and meticulously groomed woman of fifty odd years. The woman seemed out of place among the youthful crowd, most of whom were in their twenties and early thirties. The four young men at the adjacent table had calmed down, their eyes beginning to take on the glazed look of overimbibing.
Gwen worked on her glass of bourbon. From the look on her face, Hera knew that Johnny’s sudden departure upset her. She waited quietly while Gwen gathered her thoughts enough to talk about the matter.
“It is strange, though,” Gwen said.
“What’s strange?” Hera said.
“I got the impression Johnny intended to join me. But when I mentioned that I’d brought a friend, he became suspicious and started asking questions about you.”
“What did he want to know?”
“He asked for your name and how long we’d known each other and whether I trusted you. I thought the questions were odd, so to lighten the situation, I told him not to worry, that you carried a gun. That kind of freaked him out.”
“What did he say then?”
“He asked if you were a cop. I told him no, that you were a private investigator. That’s when he told me he had to work tonight, and he ran out. His reaction’s a bit odd, don’t you think?”
“Maybe something happened in his past to make him wary of PIs.”
“I suppose that’s possible. But I was beginning to have doubts about him anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s why I wanted you to meet him tonight. I thought you might check his background for me.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“I suspect he’s stealing from me. A substantial amount of cash has gone missing from my purse, and a rare first edition has disappeared from my library.”
Gwen collected first editions. Hera doubted that her friend cared about the missing cash, but the loss of one of her precious books would greatly distress her. “What makes you think Johnny took the money and the book?” she asked.
“I’m not sure when the book disappeared, but the money was in my purse when he arrived at my home two nights ago. I noticed that the cash was gone yesterday morning after he left.”
“Was anyone else in the house between the time he arrived and the time he left?”
Gwen shook her head.
Hera watched the doubt in Gwen’s eyes grow deeper. “How long have you known Johnny?” she asked.
“Where did you meet him?”
“Here. I was sitting at the bar. He sat down next to me, and we started talking. We really hit it off.”
Hera took a pen out of her coat pocket and grabbed the cocktail napkin from beneath her beer glass. “What’s Johnny’s last name?” she asked, positioning her pen over the napkin to jot it down.
“I don’t know,” Gwen said.
“You never asked him?”
“I did. But he said we shouldn’t exchange personal information just yet. He said it would add a bit of mystery to our relationship. I liked the idea. It was different and exciting so I went along with it.”
“Then what do you know about him?”
Gwen thought about the question. “Nothing really,” she said.
“What’s the name of the delivery company he works for?”
“I never asked. I don’t know where he lives, either.”
“Okay. What kind of car does he drive?”
Gwen’s face brightened. “That I can answer. A brand new red Audi R8 Spyder.”
Hera hesitated with doubt. “Isn’t that car rather expensive for a delivery truck driver?” she asked.
Gwen shrugged. “I guess so. But that doesn’t prove he’s stealing from me. Will you see what you can find out about him? I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
“I don’t take money from my friends. But I’ll be glad to check him out. Do you have a picture of him I can have?”
“No, but I can take one with my cell phone next time I see him.”
“Will he let you take his picture, given his desire for secrecy?”
“No, but after we make love he sleeps like a cadaver. Nothing wakes him until he’s ready. He won’t know I’m taking it.”
“So all I have to go on is that his name is Johnny and he drives a red Spyder?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You know he might be lying about his name. And the car might not be his.”
Gwen nodded as tears moistened her eyes.
Hera laid a reassuring hand on her friend’s arm. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll find out what he’s up to.”
Early the next morning, Hera strolled into her office carrying the morning’s Centreville Times tucked under her arm. She’d just stopped at the corner newsstand and purchased it.
Her business, Hunter Investigations, resided on the second floor of Brandt Plaza, one of the aging office buildings that occupied either side of Central Avenue between Adams and Madison Streets. The space consisted of a main room with two windows facing the avenue and a large adjacent storage room. Toby Isles, her man friday, used the storage room for his growing collection of computer devices and electronic gadgets. He also kept a cot there, which he often used when he worked into the wee hours of the morning.
Lucky, who’d been happily following his mistress, stopped just inside the office door and stuck his nose against the hardwood floor. He sniffed, took a step forward, and sniffed again.
Toby stood between the front windows before a file cabinet that held a coffee machine. He removed the carafe from the machine and poured dark brew into two mugs. He insisted on preparing the coffee himself since he thought Hera often failed to make it strong enough.
He wore dark gray slacks with white pinstripes, a red shirt, and red suspenders. A white bowtie with red polka dots completed his ensemble. Hera thought the style suited his slender, six-foot-three-inch frame. And the dark red of the shirt complemented his blond hair and brown eyes.
“Morning,” he said.
“Hey,” she said as she tossed the paper onto her desk.
She accepted the mug he handed her, then she sipped the beverage while she watched Lucky amble through the office with his nose against the floor.
“Did we just have a visitor?” she asked, figuring that the dog had picked up an unfamiliar scent.
“Yes,” Toby said, “Chuck Sully dropped by. He went downstairs to deposit some checks, then he’ll be right back.” A bank occupied the floor below their office. It came in handy whenever they needed a secure place to store valuables.
Hera set the mug on her desk and removed her coat. After throwing it across the back of her chair, she seated herself and spread the paper out before her.
Toby grabbed her coat and carried it with his coffee to the clothes tree by the door. He placed it on a hook and shook it gently with his free hand until it hung evenly. Being a neat freak, he preferred that everything be put in its proper place.
Hera ignored him, her full attention on the newspaper. An article about Rye Dawson’s murder stretched across the front page. She read the story carefully, noting that the only mention of Stephen Moreno was to identify him as the father of the girl Rye Dawson had stood accused of murdering.
She sat back in her chair and let out a sigh of relief. Given the circumstances, Stephen Moreno was certainly a suspect in Dawson’s murder. But he hadn’t been charged with the crime, a possibility that worried her since she couldn’t step up and assert Moreno’s innocence without admitting her own involvement in the man’s death.
She glanced at Toby. He was sitting at his desk, typing on his keyboard with one hand, his mug of coffee in the other. “I need you to do something,” she said.
He swiveled his chair to face her. “Just name it.”
“Gwen has asked us to do a background check on her new boyfriend.”
“Okay. What do we know about him?”
“We know that his name is Johnny and that he drives a new red Audi R8 Spyder.”
Toby waited for Hera to continue. When she remained silent, he said, “And what else?”
“Not even a last name?” he said with a frown.
“No. But we’ve had investigations in the past that started with less.”
“There must be hundreds of men in this town named John. But there’s only one place that sells Audi Spyders. I’ll see what I can find in their sales database.” He began typing on his keyboard, his fingers moving so fast they became a blur.
In a former life, Toby was a master computer hacker. He still practiced the trade, but only to aid their investigations. Hera didn’t know how he did it, but, given time, he could slip in and out of almost any computer on the internet.
She returned to her paper, scanning the column headings on each page. She stopped on an article about the young Asian woman found dead in Wicks Park several nights ago. The article added no new information to earlier reports that the police had yet to identify the woman, that she had died from a gunshot wound inflicted elsewhere, and that her body had been dumped in the popular park behind City Hall.
“Have you heard anything about this woman found in Wicks Park?” she asked.
Toby stopped his typing. “Just what the paper tells us,” he said.
“The paper doesn’t tell us much.”
“Apparently, the police haven’t been able to identify the woman. And no one’s come forward reporting a missing person that fits her description.”
“Someone must know her,” Hera said softly.
She was talking to herself so Toby turned his attention back to his keyboard and computer screen.
Hera reached into her vest pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She tapped its screen twice.
“Wim Carter,” came the response from the other end.
Wim was a longtime friend. He had watched over Hera when they were both children living on the streets, ensuring that she had something to eat every day and a warm and safe place to lay her head every night. He’d grown up strong and well read and landed the job of lead investigative journalist at the Centreville Times.
“Morning,” Hera responded.
“Hey, Hera. I was going to call you later today. What can I do for you?”
“I’m interested in the case of the young Asian woman found in Wicks Park Wednesday night. Do you know anything about it beyond what the paper is reporting?”
“Yes. There are several facts that the police are holding back from the public. The woman had cigarette burns on both of her arms. Also, she was dehydrated, and her stomach was empty.”
“So she’d been tortured, starved, and denied water?”
“Was she a prostitute?”
“The police are sure she wasn’t.”
Hera withdrew into silence, troubled by the brutality of the woman’s death and worried that the police would ignore the murder of an unidentified young woman. “Someone knows the woman,” she said.
“If they do, they’re not coming forward.”
“Thanks, Wim. That’s all I wanted to know.”
“If I hear anything else, I’ll pass it on.”
“Thanks. So what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Dinner. Are you free Thursday evening?”
“Yes. Can we meet at Gerstmann’s Delicatessen around six thirty?”
“That would be great. I’ll see you then.”
“Okay,” Hera said. She placed her phone on top of the newspaper and knitted her brows at the article that had caused her to call him.
Lucky, who was now curled up in his favorite spot by the radiator, let out a low growl. Knowing it was a warning, Hera’s gaze darted to the door. It swung open. Inside the doorframe stood Chuck Sully, the claims adjustor who had hired Hunter Investigations to find a stolen red diamond named the Voyager’s Dream. Chuck often directed insurance work their way.
He was six foot four and thick around the middle and possessed a voice that matched his impressive size. He and Hera had become friends once they realized how much they enjoyed each other’s company. They made a point of meeting for lunch each month. She loved his stories. He never ran out of them. On recall, he could turn the most somber experience into a hilarious sequence of missteps. And Chuck loved her laughter. In all the years they’d known each other, they had never become an item, because he was married and wouldn’t think of harming his wife and family by engaging in anything but talk with another woman.
Hera left her chair and met him halfway across the room. He wrapped her in his big arms and kissed the top of her head, since in his younger days he’d injured his back while playing professional basketball and it was as far as he could bend. “How’s my girl?” he said.
“Happy to see you,” she said.
“Right back at you. I just stopped by to see if you and Toby have located my diamond.”
“We’re pretty certain we know where it is.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where.”
“Ask us again when we return it to you. I don’t want to embarrass myself by having to admit my hunch was wrong.”
“But you’ll have it for me soon?”
“We’ll have it for you tomorrow.”
“That’s good news,” Chuck said. “Our client will be happy to get it back.”
He gave Hera one last squeeze then said, “I’ve got to go. I have an appointment in ten minutes, and it’ll take me fifteen to get back to my office.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow when we’ve got the diamond in hand,” Toby said.
“Then I’ll see you two tomorrow,” Chuck said. And he was out the door.
“So you’re planning to retrieve the diamond this evening?” Toby said.
“Yes,” Hera said. “I’m going to steal it back.”
owns a successful modeling agency; rude, quick-tempered, and demanding; claims her stepbrother is a ruthless killer
Zoey’s stepbrother; CEO of the family’s venture capital firm; thinks his sister’s got a screw loose
wealthy widow and matron of the Pinecrest estate; Zoey’s mother; insists that her stepson, Kyle, wouldn’t hurt anyone
a state senator; Toby’s older brother; a sleazy politician, who will gladly sell his influence
female sleuth; former military sniper; vigilante; strong and dangerous
small black and tan dog; Hera’s faithful sidekick
Hera’s man Friday; skilled computer hacker; hostile to conventional mores
Hera’s foster sister; madam of a high-class brothel; educated and well read
Hera’s drinking buddy; cat burglar; flirtatious and fun loving
police detective; former military sniper; tough but honest
Hera’s oldest friend; lead investigative journalist for the Centreville Times