Friday, September 7th
A brisk wind whipped through Camila Perez’s hair as she hurried from her car to the safety of her home. The sun was long gone, trapped low on the horizon behind a thick wall of clouds. A cold front was moving through, threatening rain and thunder. With her briefcase tucked under one arm and a takeout bag from Shorty’s gripped tight in her other hand, she fumbled to find the house key on her large metal keychain so she could take refuge.
She had too many keys. Keys that didn’t unlock anything anymore. Keys that had lost their purpose long ago. She found the one she was looking for, a squat silver thing that looked too much like several others on her ring, and inserted it into the door lock. Long strands of dark brown hair blew sideways, tickling her cheeks and doing their best to mask her vision and impede her progress.
She just wanted to get inside.
Get inside and forget about her day.
So maybe she was being a little dramatic. Life didn’t suck that much. But after pulling twelve-hour days the entire week, she was cooked. She needed a break, even if it was just a weekend spent at home.
Once inside, she kicked off her shoes and padded in her stocking feet to the dining room table. She dumped her briefcase and bag of food before marching straight to the refrigerator. She knew the contents were dismal—it was one of the reasons she’d stopped and picked up food on her way home from the station—but she also knew there was something in there she wanted. Needed, actually.
Her fingers closed around a cold can of beer, the last one in the six-pack she’d bought weeks ago. She hadn’t intended for it to last so long, but her work schedule had left little time for relaxing. Little time for anything, really.
She took a long sip and sighed. It was a small sound that somehow encapsulated every emotion she was feeling: relief, despair, contentment, even exhaustion.
Cam walked back to the table and grabbed the bag of food. She knew she’d find the cheeseburger she ordered tucked safely inside a paper wrapper, but the bag was still spotted with oily grease stains. She looked at the table, contemplating sitting there, then turned and headed for the couch.
She plopped down on the faded denim cushions, grimacing as the springs squeaked under her relatively light frame. She needed a new couch. A quick survey of the room told her she probably needed a lot of new everything: the coffee table was a thrift store find, a relic from her first apartment, and her rickety wood laminate bookcases wobbled under the weight of the tomes resting on the shelves. She’d lost a peg or two over the years, those little metal pieces that held the shelves firmly in place, and she’d never taken the time to figure out where to find new ones. Even her television was on the verge of becoming obsolete. Everyone these days had smart TVs, where one could access Netflix with the push of a button on a remote control. Not Cam. If she wanted to binge-watch a series—as if I had time, she thought with a quick eye roll—she had to do it via computer.
So yeah, a new couch should have been on her radar. Any other sane person would have replaced the things in her house years ago.
It wasn’t that she didn’t have the money to buy new stuff. Working as a detective with the Aspen Falls police department paid well.
Time was her obstacle.
Well, that and trying to find a way to be comfortable with actually spending money on new things when the stuff she had was all still perfectly serviceable. Not pretty, and a little rough around the edges, but still serviceable.
She chalked it all up to her upbringing. Growing up poor—poorer than dirt, really—could have sent her in the opposite direction, greedily gobbling up all the new things she could suddenly afford. But it hadn’t. Instead, it was as if she’d more firmly embraced the rules she’d been forced to live by during her childhood. It was why she used empty butter tubs as food storage containers, why thrift stores and garage sales were her go-to places whenever she needed anything, including clothes, and why she still found comfort in the familiarity of eating ketchup and mayo sandwiches on store-brand white bread. When even tortillas and beans were too expensive to buy, she could always afford a cheap bag of bread and slather it with ketchup and mayo packets from local fast-food places.
The sandwiches from her childhood were not on the menu tonight. Tonight, Cam had splurged. At least for her. A hamburger with cheese and bacon, and a large boat of crisp curly fries. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and even that had been relatively small: an overly ripe banana and the last container of yogurt in the fridge.
She was beyond starving. And she intended to eat every last bite of her dinner.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket the minute she bit into the burger. She knew who it would be without even looking at the name lighting up the screen.
“What did you find out?” she asked.
A man chuckled. “Hello to you, too.”
“Oh, knock it off,” she said, but her tone was good-natured. “I’m trying to eat. And forget about work.”
“Your greeting just now does not sound like forgetting about work.” Nate Hartford’s laugh was louder this time. “Besides, when do you ever do that?”
“I could ask you the same question,” she replied. Nate was a detective just like her, and they both seemed to be competing for the title of Officer Who Works the Most Hours on the Aspen Falls police force.
“Fair enough,” he admitted. He knew better than to argue with her. Because he would lose. “But Sally’s working tonight. I always try to get stuff done when she’s not around.”
This Cam believed.
“That report you were waiting on came in.”
Cam stifled an impatient sigh. Of course it had, the minute she’d decided to leave the office. “And?”
“Looks like our friend had a couple of bankruptcies before moving to town. Businesses that folded.”
Cam abandoned her dinner and went to retrieve her briefcase. She brought it back to the couch and popped it open, releasing sheaves of paper that behaved suspiciously like a sprung jack-in-the-box, scattering across her lap and the couch cushions. She found the folder she was looking for and then shoved the remainder of the pages back into her briefcase. She didn’t even attempt to latch it, knowing there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of getting it closed again anytime soon. Instead she shoved it to the far side of the couch, away from her greasy burger and fries. The last thing she needed to do was to smudge or ruin her work papers.
Using her pointer finger as a guide, she scanned the page in front of her, her eyes zeroing in on the information she was looking for. “So, financial troubles clearly aren’t new for Mr. Yates.”
“Nope.” Nate’s tone was terse. “I think a visit is in order. We can ask about them, see if this ties into the fire.”
“Definitely,” Cam murmured, still reading through her notes. Brian Yates was an out-of-towner who had opened a dry-cleaning business in Aspen Falls. A business that had mysteriously gone up in flames a few weeks earlier. He stood to collect a pretty penny with insurance payouts.
“You want me to handle it?” Nate asked. “I was going to put in a few hours this weekend anyway—”
Cam cut him off. “No.”
“This is my case,” she told him.
“I know, but—”
“I don’t need help,” she said firmly. “And it can wait ’til Monday.” But mentally, she was already trying to figure out if she could pay a visit to Mr. Yates that weekend.
Nate’s voice was a little clipped and she felt a pang of guilt. He was just trying to help, and she appreciated the offer. But this was her case, and she didn’t want anyone working on it without her. Yes, part of the reason was because she felt proprietary toward it, but it was more than that: the buck stopped with her, and it was her duty to supervise every single aspect of the case. She wasn’t going to pawn off any of the investigative responsibilities. That was her job.
She pushed the guilt from her mind and focused on the topic at hand. “Can you email me the reports? So I can take a look at them?”
Nate said yes, and she thanked him and ended the call. There was nothing left to say.
She tossed the phone onto the coffee table and repositioned her food in front of her. The burger and fries had both turned lukewarm but she ate them anyway, washing both down with her beer that was quickly warming to room temperature, too.
After tossing the greasy wrappings and bag, she shifted her briefcase to the coffee table so she could stretch out on the couch. Briefly, she considered turning on the television, but there was nothing she wanted to watch. Instead, she sat in the living room as day shifted to night, not wanting to get up to flip on the overhead light. It was early September, that time of year when the sun suddenly amped up its decision to shorten daylight hours, and Cam knew that each passing day brought them closer to the dark days of winter. She didn’t mind so much. The cold didn’t bother her, and she liked the prettiness, the stillness of winter. Besides, her life mostly revolved around work, and crime happened regardless of the season.
Her beer empty, she repositioned herself, shifting to her side. She was sleepy, she realized, but she couldn’t turn off her brain. She mentally sifted through her open cases, including the one Nate had called her about. She might not be heading back into the station until Monday, but she knew she’d be thinking about—and working on—her cases. It was just her nature. Even as her breathing slowed and her eyelids grew heavy, she continued to mull over the facts and possibilities of each one. Always thinking. Always working…
A sound startled Cam and her eyes flew open. The living room was dark, silent. The sun had set ages ago and the only light filtering into the room came from the streetlight outside, small slivers slicing through the openings between the vertical blinds on her patio door.
Another sound. She sat up on the couch, immediately alert. Her eyes scanned the room, trying to zero in on the source, finally landing on the patio door. A scraping sound, metal on metal. Almost as if someone was trying to jimmy the lock…
She rolled off the couch, wincing as her shoulder hit the floor. The bullet wound she’d suffered earlier that summer at Superior Metals had been superficial, but the muscle was still a little tender. She didn’t have time to dwell on it, though. Her attention was focused squarely on the noises coming from outside her house.
Someone was definitely trying to pick the lock. Her pulse quickened as she reached for her phone. The handgun she kept at home was in her bedroom, securely locked away, buried underneath a million things currently littering her closet floor. Self-directed anger bubbled up inside of her. Why the hell did she have a firearm for protection if it would take minutes to unearth and then unlock? She was a cop, for heaven’s sake. She knew the importance of split-second decisions. Here she was, equipped with a way to protect herself, but with limited ability to get her hands on the weapon that just might prevent an attack.
There was no way she was going to go root around in her room while someone tried to gain access to her home. She couldn’t take her eyes off the door, not when she felt like she had the element of surprise on her side.
The door jiggled again and she crawled to the kitchen. At least she knew where the knives were. She got to her knees and deftly pulled the cleaver from the knife block on the counter. She held it steady in her hand as she got to her feet. Her phone was in her other hand. All she had to do was call 911, tell the operator what was happening—it would probably be Mindy working the night shift—and then hold off the attacker with the knife until one of her colleagues showed up. Probably Blaine and Ollie; they’d been heading out for their patrol when she’d left the station.
Cam inched toward the sliding glass door. Apart from her accelerated pulse, she felt oddly calm. Any other person would have been gripped with fear, paralyzed by it, even.
But her career had been comprised of plenty of dangerous situations. She knew how to defend herself, how to disable an attacker.
The lock on the door clicked and she heard the soft whoosh as the slider cautiously slid open. In response, she raised the knife, holding it in a defensive position.
The blinds shook as a foot appeared, then a leg.
She drew in a steadying breath. “Stop,” she commanded.
But the man didn’t. He lunged forward and Cam raised the knife high as a surge of adrenaline rushed through her.
She buried the knife in the man’s leg. It would slow him down, at least long enough for her to lock herself in her room, unearth her handgun, and call 911.
The man fell to the floor, clutching at the knife now partially buried in his thigh. Cam couldn’t see his face, but she was already memorizing what was visible to her: Hispanic male, dark hair, easily 5’10, 150 pounds. Jeans and a white wifebeater, and an expensive pair of Nikes. Her gaze shot back to the man’s shirt. From what she could see, the front of it was streaked with blood.
She’d only stabbed him in the leg.
Which meant he was already injured.
This seemed to be confirmed when he made no move to get to his feet. In fact, he went positively still, and Cam wondered if he’d gone unconscious.
“Stay where you are,” she ordered.
He moaned softly in response.
A flutter of relief washed over her. Not because she had any sympathy for the man who’d just broken into her house but because the last thing she wanted to deal with was his untimely death. In her house.
“Don’t move,” she reiterated. “I’m calling the police.”
She palmed the phone so the screen was facing her and swiped her finger across it.
“No.” It was a whisper, at best. “Please. No.”
Cam shook her head. As if this asshole had any right to make demands of her. She pressed the buttons on her screen.
“No.” The voice was more forceful.
The man shifted slightly, and Cam immediately went on the defensive. She raised her foot, intending to kick him back to the floor if he made a move toward her.
She froze when she heard her name.
The man turned toward her and her heart dropped to her stomach.
The dark eyes staring into hers were hauntingly familiar. Her throat tightened and her heart vibrated like a jackhammer inside of her.
This can’t be, she thought. No. How?
She blinked, as if the physical act of opening and closing her eyes would make the apparition disappear.
But the man was still there when she reopened her eyes.
Not just any man.
The man who had broken her heart more than a decade ago.
The man she swore she’d hate for the rest of her life.