Nobody's Damsel, out January 5, 2013



The morning sky was gray and a couple of hot air balloons dotted the skyline like bubbles suspended in Lucite. I took a deep breath of chill air and began my run, feeling the usual catch in my knee for the first several paces and the jolts through my legs as my shoes hit the pavement. My cheeks were soon rubbed raw by the icy air moving past and my breath was ragged for the first twenty paces. Then I hit my stride and everything fell into a rhythm. The sun lit up the eastern horizon, creating a halo of light over the Sandia Mountains. It was good to be home in Albuquerque, with its dry desert air and broad, flat sky. Brown, open fields stretched on either side of the road.

I reached the corner, cut across the road, turned right, and made my way along the uneven shoulder, gravel crunching under my feet. More cold air pumped into my lungs as I pushed myself faster, as if by running I could escape the insanity of the last twenty-four hours and just be me, plain old regular Chloe.

My mother’s phone message had arrived last night. When she’d called, I’d stared at my phone, chewed my lip, and felt bitter guilt pool in the pit of my stomach as I hit the “Ignore” button. The picture of her that popped up showed her with her bright pink, glossy lips pooched out and her eyes shut to show off blue glitter eye shadow. Her fake lashes lay curled against her cheekbones.

“Hey sweetie,” came her voice in the message. She was subdued, which could only mean one thing, that she had something awkward to tell me. “I’m just calling to see how you and… things are. I know you don’t need your old mother snooping around in your business, but I hope everything’s all right. I love you.”

I’d deleted the message and tried not to stew about it. It was possible, I reasoned, that she just wanted to know how my studies had gone, or what my graduation ceremony had been like, but questions about these wouldn’t qualify as “snooping.” No, she wanted to know about my personal life, which meant she’d read something in some tabloid, somewhere, that said Jason was cheating on me.

He wasn’t. Even if I was new to the whole media insanity that surrounded my movie star husband, his family wasn’t. I was staying with his sister right now and she would skin him alive if she had the least suspicion that he wasn’t treating me right. The rumors didn’t bother me because I thought they were true. They bothered me because they just wouldn’t quit. They permeated every aspect of my life these days. A few months ago, I felt like I could just let them slide off me, but I hadn’t realized how relentless the onslaught would be.

As I rounded the bend, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a white sedan pull off the side of the road and into the far lane. It took a conscious effort to suppress the shudder that went through me. It was one car. Just because it went the same direction as me didn’t mean it was following me.

But the car didn’t accelerate or zip past. Instead it went slow and matched my pace. The morning was still too dim for me to get a good look at the driver. I saw the suggestion of a silhouette against the dark interior. A man, perhaps? A glint on something that could have been a camera, or maybe a phone. The window rolled down and a flashbulb went off.

Eyes on where you’re going, I thought. With this person taking pictures, the last thing I needed to do was trip and break my neck. I’d lost my rhythm and my breathing came in desperate gasps. I forced my chest to expand, drawing in another lungful of air, now tinged with the scent of car exhaust. I breathed out, stretched my legs to lengthen my stride, and tried to act casual.

If paparazzi were following me, though, and coming all the way to Albuquerque to do it, then a major story had broken. I wondered how many people had seen it, and how many of my friends now wondered if I was about to get a divorce.

The length of road I ran along still didn’t have any houses or businesses along it, only broad flat plain covered in dry grass that was so wide open that I could see clear to the other end of the city in the west. Up ahead, though, was a gas station which promised some cover. Photographers didn’t usually follow people inside such places, I’d found, but would wait until one exited again. Maybe I could call a friend to come get me, only at this hour that would mean waking someone up.

That stupid car followed me all the way to the gas station, its quiet motor chugging softly as it paced me. There wasn’t any other traffic to honk at it or to stop and ask if I were okay. Surely in Albuquerque people would do that if they saw a lone woman chased by a car. That image gave me chills.

I glanced back and slowed my steps as I reached the edge of the concrete pad, on which stood the gas station and convenience store. Sweat had soaked through my shirt around my neckline and underarms. Great. Just what the whole world wanted to see, I was sure.

My pulse throbbed in my ears as I walked past the fueling bays and crossed over to the convenience store, which was a twenty-four hour place and therefore open even this time of the morning. I shot a glance back at the car and saw it pull into a space, its passenger side window down. With the light behind it, I could now clearly see the shape of the driver and his hand, extended, holding a camera.

Time to get inside.

When I hauled the glass door open, though, the first thing I saw was the current issue of Entertainment Weekly with a picture of Jason and Gigi Malone on the cover. Gigi had her blue eyes wide and innocent and bit her lip for effect. She wore a business suit, while Jason stood behind her in a gray t-shirt that stretched over the contours of his biceps. His blue eyes were slightly narrowed and gazed out with smoldering intensity. His dark hair was longer than he wore it now, and with one hand he’d reached around Gigi and was unbuttoning the top button of her blouse. A swirling tattoo snaked up his arm. They’d added the tattoo digitally when someone at the studio decided it would give him greater sex appeal.

Even in a picture, his gaze brought me up short. I looked back at the white car and saw another vehicle pull into the station and park next to it. Two cars at this place at this hour? I ducked inside, only to see what was on the rest of the magazine rack.

Photo after photo of my scowling face burned into my retinas. “Trouble in Paradise?” said one headline. “Jason Vanderholt’s Leading Lady No More!” “Yes, Jason, You Can Do Better!” “How Did She Ever Turn Jason V.’s Head?” “Still Working the Backup Plan?” That last one was under a picture of me wearing my backpack, on my way home from classes.

It was official: according to the media, Jason and I were through.

The door chimed behind me and I made myself walk. A picture of me reading the headlines would just be too perfect, so I ducked down an aisle devoted to a hundred different flavors of beef jerky and headed for the glass fronted refrigerator in the back while I tried to collect my thoughts. I had to get home and get ready for work in a couple of hours. Calling someone seemed like an overreaction. This was my life now. I was famous by association, and I couldn’t hide from that forever. What I needed to do was just walk out, head back to the house, and ignore that stupid car.

But a glance out of the corner of my eye let me know that the person who’d followed me in was a burly, sullen looking man who stood just inside the door, his arms folded across his chest. He didn’t seem like a photographer, and I wished he did. That carriage and the way he looked the room over screamed out that he was casing the store. The last thing I needed right now was to be caught up in a holdup. When I looked over at the person working the register, I saw it was a young woman, likely not even out of her teens. She read a magazine, completely oblivious to the threatening figure in the doorway.

In a play for time, I grabbed a bottle of water, its smooth plastic cool against the palm of my hand, and headed up to the counter, only to remember that I didn’t have my wallet on me, just a credit card, and on that credit card was my married name, Chloe Vanderholt. People seemed to think it was an odd decision for me to take Jason’s last name (and yes, he used his real name for his career), but my maiden name, Winters, belonged to my absent, married-to-another-woman father and the half brother who once tried to kill me. Much as I hated the harassment that came with being a Vanderholt, I was happy to be a Vanderholt. I just wished I had a secret identity I could whip out in a situation like this.

I glanced back and saw the guy was on his way over to join me at the counter. With my thumb, I turned my engagement ring around so that the seven carat stone rested against my palm. It was a stupid thing to wear on a run, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it at my sister-in-law’s house. It was worth nearly as much as said house.

The guy was right behind me, now, out of my line of sight. I fumbled my credit card out onto the counter and the girl picked it up, swiped it, glanced at the back, then froze. Her hazel eyes registered shock as she looked up at me.

I took a deep breath. I could handle this.

“Are you related?”

“To?” I played dumb.

“Jason Vanderholt.” She said it like I must be a total idiot not to know his name. I wondered if she were from out of town because it was well known around Albuquerque that the Vanderholts were local. Jason visited all the time. That was how he and I were able to have a relationship while I was an undergrad at the University of New Mexico.

“Vanderholt’s my husband’s name.”

“So are you related to him by marriage?”

I shrugged as if I didn’t know or much care. “Maybe.” I scrawled my signature on the receipt and slid it across the counter.

The man behind me shifted his weight and cleared his throat. I sensed, before I saw, him start to sidle around me and I backed away from the counter, turned, and made a break for outside.

“Chloe,” he said.

I skidded to a stop and my hands hit the glass of the door, hard.

The girl behind the counter screamed.

The guy began to laugh and readjusted his baseball cap, his blue eyes sparkling with amusement.

“Jason, what are you doing here?”

“I was trying to find you, but you seem to be avoiding me.”

The girl’s mouth had dropped open and her gum had fallen on the counter. Red faced, she cast around for a napkin to pick it up with.

“You are getting way too good at that tough guy act,” I scolded, crossing back over to him. It was a trick he’d perfected, looking like someone you did not want to make eye contact with.

“Did you seriously not recognize me?”

“I thought you were going to rob the store.”

He cracked up and slipped an arm around my waist.

The girl behind the counter stared wide-eyed at the two of us.

“I don’t know what this is about us only ‘maybe’ being related by marriage,” he said to her, holding up his left hand and tapping his wedding ring with his thumb. “The guy who did our ceremony seemed legit. I’m pretty sure this is my wife.”

“You… you’re…”

“Jason.” He held out a hand, which she didn’t take. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Really?” squeaked the girl. “Can I um… get your… uh…”

“Got anything to sign?”

She fumbled around and finally located another napkin. Jason signed it and she stared down at the squiggle of ink as if it were a magical incantation to turn lead to gold, which at least distracted her enough that we could leave gracefully.

As soon as we stepped out the door, the guy in the white sedan got out and began to shoot pictures of us. I kept my arm firmly around Jason’s waist as we went to the car, though I knew I scowled. The press would no doubt find a way to use these pictures to add more credibility to the rumor that he and I were done as a couple.

Jason opened my door, and once he’d gone around and climbed in the driver’s side he turned to me and said, “So are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“You seemed real unhappy on Skype last night.”

“I didn’t mean to drag you away-”

“From my ever so meaningful press junket? I would’ve come last night, but my last interview went so late.”

“Jas, when I said maybe we should spend more time together, I didn’t mean that you should take time off your job.”

“What did you mean, then?”

I looked down at my hands. “That maybe I shouldn’t even start mine.”

“Your job?”

“Yeah. I mean, maybe this is just a bad time and-”

“No way.”

“It’s fine. I can-”

“It is not fine. There is no way I’m going to take your dreams from you.”

“I love you, all right?” I said. “And I want this to work.”

“What to work?”

“Us. Our marriage.”

Here we were, arguing in a parked car while that stupid paparazzo fired away. I didn’t want to take this argument back to his sister’s house, though.

“You think that’s in danger of failing?” he asked.

“You’ve seen the headlines.”

“Oh, gimme a break, Chloe. Those are tabloids. They make all kinds of stuff up. Nobody takes them seriously.”

That, I knew for a fact, was not true. Jason’s fans took these rumors very seriously. They were all reading the articles and dreaming up how they’d catch his eye once he’d offloaded me. But these thoughts just made me depressed, which made me look depressed, which only upset my husband more. I tried to think of a way to change the subject. “Thank you for coming out but-”

“Are things between us… in jeopardy?”

“No. No. Definitely not-”

He reached across the console and pulled me in for a kiss, his lips slightly dry against mine, the scent of moisturizer on his skin.

I leaned in, pressing our mouths more firmly together and put my arms around his neck. Let the paparazzo get a picture of this.

“Chloe,” Jason whispered, “I’ll take the whole day off. As many days as you-”

I shook my head. “I don’t want you to do that.” The press would read all kinds of meaning into that.

“Well I don’t want you to quit your job, so decide. Do you need me here? Just say the word.”

I shut my eyes and my next breath sounded suspiciously like a sob.

“I take that as a yes,” he said.

“No. Jas, don’t. I’ll be all right. I’m still getting used to all this, and I’m sorry that I don’t have thicker skin.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too. I didn’t mean to make you go through all this trouble-”

He kissed my cheek, then my lips again. “It’s no trouble. I’m sorry my schedule’s been so packed.”

“No, it’s fine.” I rubbed the back of his neck with my thumb. We’d had a short courtship, by modern standards, so the projects Jason was working on now were ones he’d committed to before we’d ever gotten together. Part of why we’d married when we did was to have the wedding and honeymoon out of the way before he shot two movies almost back to back. He’d been in Mexico shooting the first one for three of the six months that we’d been married, and had had press obligations for much of the rest of the time. Unlike most of his colleagues, he was still bankable in big budget blockbusters and had a solid fan base who saw everything he was in, no matter how shoddy the script or direction. In order to keep things this way, he had to pay his dues to his public. I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to take a break while other actors’ careers hit the skids as the after-effects of the Great Recession rolled on.

And while he’d been shooting films, I’d finished my masters in forensic science. It’d been an intense year of studying, both before and after the wedding, so between my commitments and his, we hadn’t had much quality time together.

He looked me straight in the eye and said, “You sure you don’t need me to rearrange my schedule?”

I shook my head and forced a smile, “If I put off starting work-”

“No.”

I wanted to raise my voice and demand he let me finish a sentence. We were talking in circles because he wasn’t even listening to me, but we didn’t have time to escalate this fight. In a couple of hours I’d be in the lab and he’d be back in LA. Besides that, he thought he was being nice by staying firm on our decision that I take this job with the Albuquerque Police Department. After all, it brought us back home again and let me work with some of the people who’d saved my life when I’d been a victim of crime, over a decade ago. As stubborn as he could be when he wanted something, he was downright intransigent if he thought I wanted something. The fact that he’d ditched his schedule and flown out here in the wee hours of the morning proved that.

I pushed all my irritations to the side and took a moment to take in my surroundings. We were in his Prius, his old car that he kept at the airport while he was out of town so that it’d be there waiting for him whenever he flew in. I’d wanted this car as soon as we knew we’d be moving here, but he’d insisted I get a new one, because I suppose a new car is the kind of thing most people want. I loved the Prius, though, it was the car he’d driven all the time we were dating. Sitting in its driver’s seat gave me a giddy sense of dislocation, a tangible reminder that I’d married the amazing, gorgeous guy who’d driven me home from dinner that one night and begged for a goodnight kiss. I still planned to swipe this car from him, but that was another battle for another time.

We could talk and bicker over the phone or Skype. I looked up into his eyes again and found his gaze fixed on me, intent as ever.

“How’d you know I was here?”

“You weren’t at Jen’s but your car was. I figured you hadn’t gotten far. Then I saw you being stalked.”

I shrugged as if that didn’t matter, as if I hadn’t stumbled into the convenience store a shuddering wreck thanks to the media scrutiny. With the tips of my fingers, I traced a pattern down the side of his neck, then pressed my hand to his chest. His eyes got that faraway look and he put his hand over mine and lifted it so that he could kiss my palm.

Just then another car pulled up on the other side of us. One look let me know it was full to bursting with teenage girls. The cashier had spread the word.

Jason started the engine and we pulled out before any more could arrive.

I leaned across the console, pressed my cheek to his shoulder, and traced my fingers down his arm.

“You trying to get us in a wreck?” he teased.

“Really? That distracting, huh?”

He just chuckled and planted a kiss on my forehead, his way of saying he was going to give as good as he got once his hands were free.

***

We got back to his sister’s house minutes later, and the place was still quiet. If people were awake, they weren’t up and about yet. The only one who saw us enter was Boots, the orange tabby with white socks that the family had recently taken in. Jason and I stole across the living room, decorated in the traditional, southwestern style with sturdy, pinewood furniture and punched tin embellishments, including a large mirror with a punched tin frame over the kiva fireplace. The place even smelled like juniper incense.

Once back in the guestroom, I shut and locked the door. Fighting was something we could do anytime. While he was here, it made more sense to focus on what we couldn’t do long distance.

***

“What is that in the driveway?” I heard Jason say in the other room as I stepped out of the shower.

“That’s Libby.” Kyra Armijo, Jen’s eighteen year old stepdaughter. Even though Jason and I owned a house, it was in the middle of renovations. It needed a state of the art security system before the interior decorator got to work furnishing it. Things had run over schedule and Jen insisted that we stay with her.

“You named your car?”

“Shut it, Jason, or I scratch your face.”

“Hey, come on. That thing’s gotta burn gas like anything.” The car they were talking about was a bright red Jeep Liberty.

“It was cheap.”

“Before you factor in the cost of gas.”

“I’ll do it. Don’t push me.” I could just picture her with her fingers hooked like claws, a French manicured nail on the end of each. This, actually, counted as her and Jason getting along. Before they’d achieved this d├ętente, they had spent a lot of time glaring at each other and not talking at all.

“Can I ask why you named your car?”

“Because I’ve gone off the rails. I bought an SUV, gave it a name, and the cops will be here for me any minute because I’m that out of control.” What made her words all the more ironic was that as a younger teen, she’d been way off the rails. The fact that she could laugh about it showed how far she’d come.

“Don’t expect me to get you out of an arrest.”

“Why are you even here? Aren’t you supposed to be smiling at the cameras like a dork somewhere?”

“Since when were you guys cat people?”

“We’re human people. We just happen to own a cat now. Huh, Boots? You gonna stay with us now?”

“Since when?”

“Since he wandered into the house. We put up signs to find his owner but no one’s called, and it’s very sad. He clearly misses his old owner.”

The rest of the conversation was drowned out with the sound of my hairdryer. I’d heard enough of their bickering to get the general gist.

By the time I got my hair dry and my makeup on, Jason was gathering his things to leave. We managed a quick kiss before he had to hurry out the door.




Opening scene from the season premiere of Blood Ritual:


The strobe of patrol car lights cut into the pitch black night as a siren screamed its way towards a suburban home. The house door stood open, the lights off. One of the front windows was shattered.

The police cruiser skidded to a stop in the driveway and the two officers got out, flashlights in hand, sweeping the beams over the front yard to illuminate a smiling and cheery yard gnome and a wild rabbit that hopped away from the noise to get lost in the bushes.

“Hello?” one of the officers shouted. “Anyone here?”

When there was no answer, he and his partner exchanged a knowing look. “Hello!” he yelled again. Into his radio he said, “We’re at the property, the door’s open and there’s no sign of anyone.”

“Mack!” shouted his partner. He shone his flashlight into the front door onto a lifeless hand in a pool of blood. The arm and the rest of the body were hidden from view.
“That’s probable cause. Let’s go.”

The two cops stormed into the house, testing the light switch to find no electricity. Their flashlights animated the shadows of knickknacks on the mantle, shoes set out against the wall, and a frightened housecat that yowled and ran out of frame.
Mackenzie dropped to his knees next to the lifeless hand and checked for a pulse. “It’s faint,” he said, “but it’s there.” 

His partner just shook his head, pulled out his radio, and barked, “We need an ambulance.”
CUT TO:
An office, with a woman in a suit, her feet up, her badge lying on top of a pile of papers. The phone rang and she answered, “Drew Clayborn.” Her expression changed from casual to serious as she took her feet down and leaned in closer to the phone base, as if this might improve her ability to hear what the caller said. “Understood. Yes, I’m on my way.”

She grabbed her badge, pulled on a trenchcoat, and marched out of the office. A secretary behind a desk looked up to follow her with his gaze as she swept past, checking her gun and slipping it back into her shoulder holster.

BEGIN OPENING CREDITS.

***

The first thing I heard when I walked into the lab was the police dispatcher’s voice coming from a police scanner set up on the counter.

“Okay… We’ve had a call in to 911 that someone heard popping noises at a house. Hernandez? Wolfson? Can you guys get over to a house in Volcano Cliffs?”

“Popping noises?”

“That might have been gunshots. It’s all I’ve got. Can you go check?”

“Not right now. We’ve got someone stalled out in the middle of Coors and then pretty sure we got a DWI. And two people just ran a stoplight.”

“Well, when you get a chance, here’s the address.”

“Yeah, okay.”

The lab was in a basement and had enough fluorescent light banks in the ceiling to make anyone look like a walking corpse. The place was still empty; I was the second person to arrive today.

The first to arrive, a man, straightened up when he saw me. He’d been leaning against a worktable at the back of the room and had his dark hair buzzed short. His gray green eyes looked me over and his mouth turned down at the corners. “Chloe Vanderholt?”

“Yeah, hi.” I debated holding out my hand for a handshake, but since he didn’t, I didn’t.

“Right… so…” He looked me up and down, in an appraising rather than lecherous way, and said, “Come back to my desk. We should probably talk. I’m the new supervisor here.”

“Miguel Gonzolas?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” He turned to lead the way. The lab was one large room with desks at the back, shelves of books in the corner, and equipment arrayed on counters and worktables throughout.

From his aloof manner, I got the distinct impression that this wasn’t a friendly, welcome-to-the-team kind of chat. Once at his desk, he hooked a chair from a nearby desk for me and sank down into his seat. “I’ve never met you before, which is kind of strange since I’ve been interviewing new applicants since before I got promoted to supervisor.”

“I was interviewed by the previous supervisor and the Police Chief-”

“I know. That’s not normal.”

Because this lab was under the jurisdiction of the police department, the Chief of Police was its director, so her conducting an interview was something she had the power to do, even if it wasn’t the sort of thing she ever, actually did. I wondered now if this new supervisor was going to terminate me on the spot just to get back at her. That idea did have a certain appeal.

“You went to a good school and got good references and all that,” he said. “I’m sure you can be a good crim.” “Crim” was short for criminalist, and was what most forensic scientists called themselves. “But, we haven’t had any job openings lately. Our budget is real tight. I mean, how did you even apply?”

It was all I could do not to squirm on the rock hard cushion of the office chair. “I was just offered an interview a few months ago.” Not my usual style at all. Jason and I had discussed it at length, since it was obviously a courtesy extended to the Vanderholt name. In the end I’d chosen to believe that it was just the APD’s way of keeping the whole thing under wraps. No one else in the lab would find out unless the Chief decided to hire me.

“So you’re saying you didn’t even apply?”

“No. The pay they offered was extremely low. They told me about the tight budget.” I also liked to think this meant the whole deal wasn’t corrupt.

He looked me over again.

“The pay’s kind of a non-issue for me,” I said.

His mouth quirked up at the corners.

“This is the field I want to work in. This is a city I know. Two years ago I was just another undergrad at UNM working my way towards a job like this. Now I’ve got a famous last name, but I’m the same person.”

No one ever believed me when I said that, other than the Vanderholts, at least.

“Listen,” I said, “if this is a problem, I can leave. I won’t ever breathe a word to anyone about it-”

“No. If Madame Chief says you have a job, you have a job. Let’s get you set up in your desk, get your phone line, stuff like that. The other guys, when they come in, they’re all going to know something’s fishy, though.”

And he made no offer to smooth ruffled feathers. He was polite enough when he showed me my desk and my little personal safe. The evidence was stored on site, and Miguel took me into the other rooms, which included a walk in freezer (which had, besides the evidence, a small stash of frozen Evol Burritos), walk in refrigerator, and a room with rack after rack of shelves. There was a simple procedure to log what piece of evidence I was working on and I could then store it in my personal safe until I was done with it.

By the time we got back from the tour of the evidence storage, the lab had filled up with a dozen or so other people. Now that I saw them, I could see what Miguel meant when he called them “the other guys.”

Every single one of them was male.

***

“Okay, we’ve got a second call in regarding a house in Volcano Cliffs.”

I only half listened as the dispatcher confirmed that this was the same house in Volcano Cliffs that two cops had checked on just a little while ago, over an hour after the first phone call. The cops had knocked on the door, gotten no answer, and that was that. An unanswered door was not grounds for a search warrant.

“Tell the caller to go over and check. We can’t just break the door down.”

“Yeah, the operator gave that same advice.”

“Okay, so what do you want us to do about it?”

“Just make a note of the second call. I’ll let you know if anything else comes of it.”

As they spoke, I took heated superglue in a metal tray and put it and a baseball bat that had been used in an assault and battery, into a large glass terrarium, which I sealed up tight. This was one way to reveal latent fingerprints. Some crime labs had fancy cyanoacrylate fuming tanks, but this was not a fancy lab.

After a painful round of introductions, in which I had gone to each person by myself and said hello, I’d decided to keep to myself and just do my job for the rest of the day. I hadn’t given out my last name, but I heard it in whispers throughout the lab. More than once, I felt an irritated gaze. But I would make this work. Eventually they’d see I just wanted to do the job and get over their reservations about me. There was no shortcut through this process.

I did wish, though, when lunchtime rolled around, that someone would offer me an Evol Burrito. Several guys grabbed them, so I wasn’t sure whose stash it was. Once they were microwaved, the scent of green chile and lime hung in the air for the rest of the afternoon.

***

On the way home, I could tell I was being tailed by one car, perhaps two. The sun was just low enough in the sky that I couldn’t block it with the fold-down visor. It cast a rich rose light over the city, so that even the glints in the silver chrome of cars nearby looked deep gold. I drove with one hand outstretched to shade my eyes. One of the cars was so close to my tail that I fought the urge to slam on the brakes and mash its grille, but I knew that even the legitimate press would run wild with that one. My friend, the white sedan, pulled into the passing lane two cars behind me. Great.

Three cars followed me down the exit ramp, but I didn’t want to believe they were all tailing me. The farther into the Sandia Foothills I drove, though, the more obvious it became. Three paparazzi? I did not want to know what kind of headline had given me this kind of fame, but I was sure I’d find out. I felt a certain lightness as I turned down the private road to Jen’s house and saw my unwanted entourage pull over.

When I reached the house, Jason’s Prius was out front. I got out and ran inside with a mix of excitement and worry.

I found him in the living room, talking to Jen, who looked at him with her usual sisterly condescension. To her, he would always be her ridiculous, irresponsible little brother, even though he was only three minutes younger. He’d once thought that it was because he was the last of the siblings to get married, but our wedding hadn’t changed a thing.

My suspicion was that because Jason had moved away from the rest of the family when he was fifteen, he’d always be fifteen to Jen. He and their mother had gone to Hollywood, where he’d soon gotten work and become a star. Hence Jen had seen the rest of his adolescence in brief visits, on television, and projected large on the movie screen and it was as if all of it had become fiction in her mind. Even their little brother, Steve, was more of an adult in her eyes than Jason.

Right now my husband wasn’t going to give her any hassle over it. She was seven months pregnant with twins, which was why I didn’t see a whole lot of her even though I lived in her house. The doctor had ordered her to keep her activity to a minimum. At the sight of me, her face lit up. “Chloe!” She had the same deep blue eyes as Jason and the same color hair, though hers had curls. Once people found out Jen was Jason’s twin, they wondered how they hadn’t noticed it before. The family resemblance was strong.

I took a deep breath. There was definitely a lingering scent of garlic in the air. “That better not be your cooking I smell.”

“Don’t you get after me, too.” She was a professional chef who liked to cook to relieve stress, boredom, anger… pretty much any emotion. At times it was endearing, but right now it was bad for her health and that of her babies. “That’s Kyle’s cooking you smell. He made a bunch of meals this afternoon and put them in the freezer.”

I’d learned during this visit that he was a master chef in his own right. Kyra had explained to me that this was how they met; he’d been foreman of a building site next to her old restaurant and had plied her with homemade New Mexican food and offers to teach her some family recipes. Only, when he found out he was flirting with Jason Vanderholt’s sister, that had been a shock. Jen didn’t see him for a week, until she started go to past his building site with deliveries of fresh baked bread and cookies. According to her, it’d taken until the end of the construction project to talk him around.

Jason got to his feet and came over to hug me. “Hey,” he said softly, right into my ear. “My last interview for today got pushed into tomorrow.”

Jen grinned at the sight of us with our arms around each other. I’d been Jason’s friend for months before anything romantic happened, and I gather all during that time the family had been in agreement that Jason should try to become more than a friend, if he knew what was good for him. I’m still not entirely sure why they all voted for a girl who grew up in a trailer park in the South Valley and had bullet scars on her person.

“Okay,” I said, “so there isn’t a news story out that we’re on the brink of divorce again?”

I expected the usual chuckles, but Jen and Jason exchanged a look. “There’s always some kind of story like that.” He sounded defensive. “I just wanted to come see you.”

“Ignore the tabloids,” said Jen. “Pure fiction.” She’d once banned Jason from visiting when his bad press got to be too much. Like their parents, she had a rigid idea about how people should live and was especially protective of Kyra, who hadn’t had a lot of structure in her early childhood. If she thought the tabloids were printing pure fiction, then she was likely right. She’d been dealing with this for much longer than I had.

“What is the story?” I asked. “Just out of curiosity?”

“There are a few, and they’re all stupid,” said Jason. “Forget about it.” This time, he turned away from his sister. I saw his expression blank for a split second, like a shadow passing, and then he looked at me as if he had nothing to hide.

My phone rang before I could think of what to say next. The number that popped up wasn’t one I knew. “Hello?”

“Vanderholt. It’s Miguel.”

“Oh, hi.”

“We’ve got a crime scene on the West Side. Wilson’s the other crim on call tonight, but he grew up a block away from there. It’s too likely he’s got a personal connection. Neither of the ballistics guys can make it, so I’m calling you. Can you come work the scene?”

“This the one that we heard the calls about all day?”

“Yep.”

“So it’s a homicide?”

“Miraculously, no. Not yet. The victim’s in bad shape and lost a lot of blood, but dang if she isn’t still alive. Listen, can you come? I need an answer pronto.”

“What is it?” Jen asked.

“Crime scene on the West Side.”

“Go,” said Jason. “If they need you, definitely go.”

“That a yes?” asked Miguel.

“Sure. Yes. Meet you at the lab?”

“Yeah, we’ll take the van – the CSI van. We’ll drive it from there.”

“All right, I’m on my way.”

“Was that your husband?”

“Yeah, why? Want his autograph?”

“Ah… no. See you soon.”

Jason had already escorted me to the door by the time I ended the call. We had a quick kiss and then I was on my way back to work.

***

I’d like to think I’m an intelligent person, but that doesn’t mean I always do intelligent things. As soon as I got in my car, I dialed my mother and put the phone on speakerphone.

“Chloe?” she answered.

“What’s up, Mom?” I pulled away from the curb and had to shield my eyes once again from the sun. The light was still honey rich, the kind that made adobe homes appear to glow from the inside. It’d still be a while until sunset, so I rested my arm on the steering wheel so that I could keep my hand in position to block the sun. As luck would have it, I was driving west.

“Honey, how are things?”

“Fine. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I assume you’ve seen the news.”

“Nope. Do I want to?”

“Oh, honey…”


Buy now