Last Stand Series
Release Date: October 2009
If someone commits the perfect murder…
For more than a year, Sebastian Costas has been trying to unravel the truth behind the murder of his ex-wife and son. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he’s convinced that her second husband–a cop–committed both murders, then faked his own death. Now Sebastian has followed the slimmest of leads to Sacramento…and that’s where he finally gets the break he needs. Jane Burke, an investigator with The Last Stand, calls him in connection with a separate crime–a crime that could lead him straight to the man he’s been looking for.
Will he try it again?
Once married to a serial killer, Jane has spent the past five years rebuilding her life. And with Sebastian she finally has a chance at happiness. But the man they’re after is after them, too. For him this has become a personal battle, one he’s determined to win. Whatever it takes…
“Two emotionally damaged protagonists find much-needed healing and unexpected love in a chilling, sensual tale that features a host of skillfully developed characters and intricate, multilayered plotting. Sacramento-based Novak (The Perfect Liar) writes gripping romantic thrillers. This is the latest in her “Last Stand” series.”
~Library Journal Romance
4.5 stars and a TOP PICK!
As always, Novak’s plotting is flawless, and her characterizations are rich and multilayered. What sets this story apart from the rest is the intensity of the romance between the two wounded protagonists–it simply sizzles. A keeper.
~RT BOOK Review Magazine
These men who killed their wives…they didn’t have a clue how to do it right, how to get away with it.
Malcolm Turner frowned in disgust as the credits appeared on the true crime show he’d just watched on TV. It’d featured a male nurse who’d murdered his mouthy, blonde wife. As far as Malcolm was concerned, she’d deserved what she got, she’d been a straight up bitch. But what kind of idiot talks about succinyl chloride before using it to end a human life?
Punk, Malcolm muttered and glanced over at his wife, asleep in bed next to him. When he killed her and her teenage son, no one would question a thing. They’d believe exactly what he wanted them to believe because he knew what the hell he was doing.
He should–he’d been in law enforcement for fifteen years.
Jane Burke recognized an opportunity when she saw one. Ever since she’d started working at The Last Stand, she’d been waiting for her chance, hoping a case would come along where she could prove herself.
She was pretty sure it had just walked through the door.
The man who let me in said you might be able to help me. A short, cannonball of a woman stood uncertainly in the entryway of Jane’s office, swiping at tear-filled eyes.
Motioning for her to come farther into the room, Jane carried a box of tissues around the desk. I’ll do my best, she promised. But first I need to learn more about why you’re here.
The young woman’s obesity made it difficult to guess her age, but Jane pegged her for twenty-four or twenty-five. Gerald, the volunteer who’d let her in, had told Jane she had two siblings who’d recently gone missing. So far, that was all Jane knew. What’s your name?
In an attempt to scale back her emotions, the woman took two tissues and blew her nose. Gloria. Gloria Rickman.
Gloria, I’m Jane Burke. Please, sit down so we can talk. Jane returned the tissue box to its generally ignored corner, then pulled a chair away from the wall, placing it in front of the desk, where it would’ve been if she’d been in the habit of taking her own cases. She’d been in training since she started six months ago, which meant she did all the tedious record searches, time-consuming court runs, and boring clerical work for the three partners who were the backbone of the victim’s charity. But she had a feeling the criminal justice courses she’d been taking, and all she’d learned on the job, was about to pay off. With Skye Willis and Ava Trussell in South America, tracking a father who’d stolen his child from his ex-wife, and Sheridan Granger out on maternity leave, this was the perfect time to tackle her first case. Other than the volunteers who came in to stuff envelopes or solicit donations, Jane was in charge of the office.
Let me get out a notebook. Then I want you to tell me what has you so upset.
The chair creaked as the woman settled into it. Rolls of flesh spilled over the wooden frame, but Jane didn’t care about her excess weight. She’d once been heavy herself. Maybe not quite to this degree, but definitely frumpy. If not for the counseling, daily work-out sessions and self-defense classes that’d become her routine–all a product in one way or another of her friendship with Skye–she’d probably still be the disillusioned, overweight, hard-edged smoker she’d been four years ago.
Now she ran an hour a day, weighed a trim 110 pounds, and had quit trying to kill herself with cigarettes. Only her smoker’s voice remained. And the scars from that period of her life, of course. They’d never go away entirely–especially the ones on the inside.
I’m here ’bout my two sisters, Gloria said. They went missin’ three weeks ago.
Three weeks ago? Jane echoed in surprise.
Tears welled up again. Three weeks ago las’ Saturday.
It was Monday morning. That added another day, almost two.
I reported it to the police that afternoon, she said, but the detective who called me ain’t found nothin’ yet. He’s been tryin’, but…no one has a clue where my sisters are an’…I’m so scared. That’s why I’m here. I have to do somethin’ more. I cain’t jus’ sit around an’wait. I’m all they have. I’m all they ever had.
Where’re your parents?
We have different fathers, but none of ’em are any good, she said. Our mother didn’t hang with the best crowd, you hear what I’m sayin’? She died of a drug overdose when I was twenty-three. I was the oldest and had my own place, so I moved my sisters in with me. Latisha, the youngest, wasn’t even in high school yet.
Jane could easily identify with their family dynamic. She’d never known her own father. Her mother hadn’t been a drug addict, but she’d died young, when Jane was only six, leaving her to be raised by an aging aunt, who’d remained single her entire life and had since died, as well. Where do you live?
In a one-bedroom apartment on Marconi. We been there since they came to live with me. It a small place, but we make it work. I won’t uproot ’em again and again and again, like what my mama did to me.
It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to provide some stability, Jane said. How long ago did you assume responsibility for them?
It’s been ’bout three years now. They eighteen and seventeen. They both graduated this last June, she stated proudly. Marcie got her G.E.D., but Latisha, she was put up a grade on account of she’s so smart. She graduated with honors.
So the missing sisters were, for the most part, adults. Did you have an argument with them, try to punish them, anything that might’ve made them angry enough to leave?
We argue all the time, but that ain’t what’s wrong, Ms.Jane. You can call me Jane.
They ain’t never left before. They know I yell ’cause I want ’em to be more and have more than our mother. They gotta go to college. They keep tryin’ to drop out so they can help me keep a roof over our heads. It’s tough to earn a livin’ workin’ at a convenience store. I put in a good sixty, seventy hours a week. But they’re what make it worth doin’ knowin’ they’ll have a better life if I keep goin’. I cain’t lose ’em. Not like this. They’re what make my life worth livin’. More tears streaked her bronze-colored cheeks. ‘We been through too much. It cain’t end like this.
Already Jane feared she might be in over her head. Be careful what you wish for, she silently chided herself. But if she didn’t get involved, Gloria would have to wait for Skye and Ava to return in order to get someone from The Last Stand to investigate and, depending on what happened in South America, that could take a week to ten days, maybe longer. Skye and Sheridan’s job was a job for hire, something they needed to do to keep the charity’s doors open. They wouldn’t give up until the woman who’d contracted with them had her child back. And Sheridan, their other partner, was planning to spend the entire month at home with her new baby. She was working only the cases she’d had when she left.
Have you contacted all their friends? Jane asked. Do you have any other family in the area?
I done talked to everybody. I been on the phone night an’ day ever since. Ain’t nobody seen ’em.
When was the last time you had contact?
That same Saturday. Latisha was sleepin’ when I had Marcie take me to work. Latisha had to wait tables at noon and Marcie had to be at the Rancho Cordova Marriott at three. She a maid. She leaned forward, taking Jane into her confidence. I let ’em work part-time, if they keepin’ up with their schoolwork and all. She rocked back. Anyway, Latisha never showed up at the restaurant. I didn’t know ’cause nobody never called me. But when Marcie didn’t go to work like she always do, the hotel wanted to know what was what. I tried her cell, but it keep goin’ to voice mail.
So you’re thinking they disappeared from your apartment?
No. As soon as I could get someone to cover the store, I took the bus home and foun’ the house jus’ fine, locked up an’ everythin’. But the car was gone. We have a little Honda Civic.
Jane made a quick note of this information. Is there any chance your sisters could be into drugs, Gloria?
Oh, no! You think I’d let that happen, after I watched my mamma kill herself with that shit? After all I done to raise ’em up good? They wouldn’t dare. They know I’d kick their asses clear to Kingdom Come.
Jane believed she would, too. Where do you think they might’ve driven?
Gloria’s double chin wagged as she shook her head. With the price of gas, they had no business goin’ nowhere. We gotta pinch pennies jus’ to survive. Mosta time, we take the bus. But maybe Marcie decided to buy some donuts and a newspaper. She been talkin’ ’bout gettin’ a new job, a better one. That’s my best guess, since the car was found near Hank’s Donuts. Hank’s is our favorite.
Jane quickly tried to assemble the scenario in her mind. Car abandoned; girls gone. Both sisters were going to school and working. They were also living in an environment that wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it was very apparent that they were at least loved. What could’ve gone wrong? What condition was the car in? Did it have a flat, a breakdown? she asked.
That car has one problem after another. It ain’t worth but a few hundred bucks. But the police found it parked on a residential street off Franklin Boulevard, just a few blocks from the donut place, like I said. And it was runnin’ jus’ fine.
Was there anything inside the car to indicate where your sisters had been that morning, some napkins from Hank’s? A grocery sack? A Starbucks cup?
Jus’ the books and stuff they leave in there all the time. I keep tellin’ ’em not to leave their backpacks in the car. It don’t even lock right. But sometimes they do. You know what kids’re like these days.
This woman was only in her twenties, but she acted a lot closer to Jane’s forty-six. With so much responsibility thrust on her at such a young age, she probably felt at least forty. What about cell phones? Have the police checked to see if they’ve been used since Latisha and Marcie disappeared?
Their phones were in the car. Covering her face, Gloria broke into sobs but spoke through them. That’s another way I know’d they din’t walk off. They wouldn’t leave them phones behind. We got no money for that bill but they’d rather go without food.
This wasn’t sounding very hopeful. Jane forced a pleasant expression to cover the hard lump of concern in her chest. Do you have physical possession of the phones? We’ll need to check all incoming and outgoing calls. It’s possible they know someone you didn’t realize they knew. Maybe that someone has seen them since you have.
The police have the phones. A detective’s goin’ through their recent calls.
Which detective is that?
They gave the case to a white guy named Willis. He a handsome man. But he wearing a weddin’ ring. I checked.
Jane might’ve been tempted to laugh at Gloria’s aside, but she was too distracted by the name. Did you say Willis?
Yes, ma’am, I did.
Too bad. Willis was Skye’s husband. That would prove tricky if Jane expected to hide her involvement from her bosses.
On the other hand, having David on the case was sort of fortuitous. At least he was cooperative and sympathetic to what they were trying to accomplish at The Last Stand. A lot of the other members of the department weren’t nearly so friendly. They believed the mere existence of TLS sent a message to the community that the police weren’t being effective. Some of the unflattering comments Skye, Ava and Sheridan occasionally made to the media didn’t help. Your husband’s the cop, not you! someone on the force had yelled at Skye just a few weeks ago.
Jane wasn’t a cop, either. She wasn’t even a full-on caseworker. Not yet. But if she’d learned anything in the past six months it was that drive and determination, and sheer hard work, could make up for a lot in an investigation.
Gloria was explaining the situation in greater detail. Taking a deep breath, Jane refocused.
I guess Detective Willis worked them cases down by the American River a few years back. She wiped her nose. Murders. They think this might be related.
Jane felt her eyebrows slide up. If those cases were the ones that sprang immediately to her mind, this wasn’t related. It couldn’t be. Jane knew the perpetrator. She’d been living with him at the time. Oliver Burke was dead. But the thought of what he’d done in the years she’d been married to him still made her shudder. He’d been so good at compartmentalizing, at playing whatever part he needed to play in order to avoid detection. He’d fooled even her, right up until the bitter end.
That’s what she had to offer The Last Stand that none of the others could, she reminded herself. She knew how a psychopath thought, how he behaved, how manipulative he could be. Not only had she shared a decade of her life with Oliver, she had a child by him–and was nearly murdered by him, too.
I’ll give Detective Willis a call, she told Gloria. I know him. He’s a friend.
The chair groan as Gloria shifted. You don’t think my sisters are dead, do you? I cain’t even imagine what I’d do if they was dead.
Jane wanted to promise that they weren’t. But Latisha and Marcie had been gone for three weeks. They’d left their car, even their cell phones behind, and there’d been no trace of them. What were the chances they weren’t already lying lifeless in the woods somewhere? The only thing they had going for them was the fact that they’d been together. That was better than disappearing alone. Unless the worst had happened. Then Gloria would lose both sisters at once.
We’ll find them, one way or another, she said. Can you get me some photographs, so I know what they look like?
I got them here. She took come pictures from a purse made on the sack model, as well as a crudely made flyer. I been postin’ that flyer everywhere I can.
Jane accepted these items, stared into the faces of the missing girls and felt a renewed sense of urgency as they became real to her. One had a distinctly darker complexion than the other, corn rose and a nose piercing. The name Marcie was written at the bottom. The other, Latisha, had almond-shaped eyes and a wide smile and an attractive bob. Good idea, she said. I-I’ll do what I can from here.
Thank you. Gloria dabbed at her wet cheeks. I-I got no money, but I’ll do whatever I need to–
Don’t worry about fees, Jane hurried to interject, setting the pictures and the flyer, which had the word MISSING written in large block letters across the top, on the edge of her desk. Our services are free to those who need them.
Relief eased some of the tension in the other woman’s bearing. Hallelujah! Thank you, God.
I might require some insight or answers as we go along, however, Jane continued. Can you give me your contact information?
Gloria complied with an address, work number and cell phone number.
What about their fathers, and your father? Jane asked. Can you tell me how to reach these men?
What would you want with my no-good father?
I’m just being thorough.
I don’t want him callin’ me again. She sank lower in her seat. But…I’ll do anything if it’ll help. His name’s Timothy Huff. I don’t have no number for him, but you can find him down at the pool hall on Florin Road most Fridays, drunker’n a skunk.
That was loose contact information indeed. And Marcie’s dad?
He call every once in a while, from prison.
At least they could rule him out. What’s he in for?
That leaves Latisha’s dad.
Gloria shook her head. You don’t wanna bother Luther Wilson. He got a anger management problem. He trouble. We call him Lucifer, but we do it behind his back. That’s how bad he is.
Does he know his daughter’s gone missing?
I haven’t told him, she said. What’s the use? He don’ care ’bout her. He never has.
Jane dropped her pen and created a steeple with her fingers. How’d your mother meet these men?
You’re saying she was a prostitute?
She had to pay for her drugs somehow.
That explained a lot. What’s so scary about Lucifer, I mean Luther? she corrected.
He was her pimp, and he beat the hell out of her.
Now Jane knew she was in over her head. She liked to believe a bottle of bleach and a couple of tattoos made her look tough. But at 5’4 she was no match for an angry pimp. I’ll keep that in mind. Forcing a smile, she stood. Thanks for coming in. I’ll call you when I’ve had a chance to do some checking.
Gloria’s thighs creating a swishing sound as Jane walked her to the door. Thank you. Thank you so much, she said.
Jane wasn’t prepared for the embrace that accompanied those words, but as Gloria’s shoulders shook beneath her arms, she felt a renewed determination. She wanted to help, but could she handle this case?
Pimps. Prostitutes. Drugs. She’d never been part of that world. She’d lived with a psychopath, but Oliver was dead, and she was safe. She’d been safe for nearly five years….
Jumping into this was asking for trouble. Most people were kidnapped or killed by a family member or close friend, which meant she had to contact Latisha’s father. She had to talk to everyone associated with the missing girls. That was the first cardinal rule of a good investigation.
But if Luther had anything to do with what’d happened to his daughter and her sister, he certainly wouldn’t want her snooping around….