Authors: Lisa Jackson
Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Thrillers, #Suspense
See How She Dies
If She Only Knew
The Night Before
The Morning After
Most Likely to Die
Left to Die
Published by Kensington Books
There are many people I would like to thank for their expertise and help in the writing and publication of this book. Special thanks to Rosalind Noonan, fellow author and friend, for her tireless help, and to everyone at Kensington Publishing for their patience, especially my editor, John Scognamiglio. Also, in no particular order, thanks to Nancy Bush, Ken Bush, Matthew Crose, Niki Crose, Michael Crose, Larry Sparks, Ken Melum, Kelly Foster, Darren Foster, and my agent, Robin Rue.
If I’ve missed anyone—hey, no surprise there, but please accept my apologies.
I know I’ve bent the rules and played around with the police department procedure just to keep my story moving; this book in no way reflects the actual police departments of Los Angeles, California, or New Orleans, Louisiana, or their procedures.
Culver City, a Suburb of Los Angeles
Twelve Years Earlier
o you’re not coming home tonight, is that what you’re getting at?” Jennifer Bentz sat on the edge of the bed, phone pressed to her ear, as she tried to ignore that all-too-familiar guilty noose of monogamy that was strangling her even as it frayed.
Ever the great communicator, her ex wasn’t about to commit.
Not that she really blamed him. Theirs was a tenuous, if sometimes passionate, relationship. And she was forever “the bad one,” as she thought of herself, “the adulteress.” Even now, the scent of recent sex teased her nostrils in the too-warm bedroom, reminding her of her sins. Two half-full martini glasses stood next to a sweating shaker on the bedside table, evidence that she hadn’t been alone. “When, then?” she asked. “When will you show up?”
“Tomorrow. Maybe.” Rick was on his cell in a squad car. She heard the sounds of traffic in the background, knew he was being evasive and tight-lipped because his partner was driving and could overhear at least one side of the stilted conversation.
She tried again. Lowered her voice. “Would it help if I said I miss you?”
No response. Of course. God, she hated this. Being the pathetic, whining woman, begging for him to see her. It just wasn’t her style. Not her style at all. Men were the ones who usually begged, and she got off on it.
Somewhere in the back of her consciousness she heard a soft click.
“I heard you.”
Her cheeks burned and she glanced at the bedsheets twisted and turned, falling into a pool of pastel, wrinkled cotton at the foot of the bed.
Oh, God. He knows.
The metallic taste of betrayal was on her lips, but she had to play the game, feign innocence. Surely he wouldn’t suspect that she’d been with another man, not so close on the heels of the last time. Jeez, she’d even surprised herself.
There was a chance he was bluffing.
She shuddered as she imagined his rage. She played her trump card. “Kristi will wonder why you’re not home. She’s already asking questions.”
“And what do you tell her? The truth?”
That her mother can’t keep her legs closed?
He didn’t say it, but the condemnation was there, hanging between them. Hell, she hated this. If it weren’t for her daughter, their daughter…
“I’m not sure how long the stakeout will be.”
A convenient lie. Her blood began a slow, steady boil. “You and I both know that the department doesn’t work its detectives around the clock.”
“You and I both know a lot of things.”
In her mind’s eye she saw him as he had been in the bedroom doorway, his face twisted in silent accusation as she lay in their bed. Sweaty, naked, she was in the arms of another man, the same man with whom she’d had an affair earlier. Kristi’s biological father. Rick had reached for his gun, the pistol strapped in his shoulder holster, and for a second Jennifer had known real fear. Icy, cold terror.
“Get out,” he’d ordered, staring with deadly calm at the two of them. “Jesus H. Christ, get the hell out of my house and don’t come back. Both of you.”
He’d turned then, walked down the stairs, and left without so much as slamming the door. But his rage had been real. Palpable. Jennifer had escaped with her life, but she hadn’t gone. She couldn’t.
Rick hadn’t returned. They hadn’t even fought about it again. He’d just left.
Refused to answer her calls.
By then it had been too late.
She’d already met her lover again. As much out of retribution as desire. Fuck it. No one was going to run her life, not even Rick-effin’ Bentz, superhero cop. So she’d met the man who was forever in her blood.
The words were her own. She closed her eyes and hung her head, feeling lost. Confused. Never had she planned to cheat on Rick. Never. But she’d been weak, temptation strong. She shook her head and felt black to the bottom of her soul. Who was she so intent on punishing? Him? Or herself? Hadn’t one of her shrinks told her she didn’t think she deserved him? That she was self-destructive?
What a load of crap. “I just don’t know what you want,” she whispered weakly.
“Neither do I. Not anymore.”
She saw an inch of liquid remaining in one martini glass and drank it down. The noose tightened a notch, even as it unraveled. God, why couldn’t it be easy with him? Why couldn’t she remain faithful? “I’m trying, Rick,” she whispered, gritting her teeth. It wasn’t a lie. The problem was that she was trying and failing.
She thought she heard a muffled footstep from downstairs and she went on alert, then decided the noise might have been the echo in the phone. Or from outside. Wasn’t there a window open?
“You’re trying?” Rick snorted. “At what?”
So there it was. He did know. Probably was having someone tail her, having the house under surveillance. Or worse yet, he had been parked up the street in a car she didn’t recognize and had been watching the house himself. She glanced up at the ceiling to the light fixture, smoke alarm, and slow-moving paddle fan as it pushed the hot air around. Were there tiny cameras hidden inside? Had he filmed her recent tryst? Witnessed her as she’d writhed and moaned on the bed she shared with him? Observed her as she’d taken command and run her tongue down her lover’s abdomen, and lower? Seen her laughing? Teasing? Seducing?
Jesus, how twisted was he?
She closed her eyes. Mortified. “You sick son of a bitch.”
“I hate you.” Her temper was rising.
“I know. I just wasn’t sure you could admit it. Leave, Jennifer. It’s over.”
“Maybe if you didn’t get off bustin’ perps and playing the superhero ace detective, maybe if you paid a little attention to your wife and kid, this wouldn’t happen.”
He hung up.
“Bastard!” She threw the phone onto the bed as her head began to pound.
You did this, Jennifer. You yourself. You knew you’d get caught, but you pushed away everything you wanted and loved, including Kristi and a chance with your ex-husband, because you’re a freak. You just can’t help yourself.
She felt a tear slither down her cheek and slapped it away. This was no time for tears or self-pity.
Hadn’t she told herself that reconciliation with Rick was impossible? And yet she’d returned to this house, this home they’d shared together, knowing full well it was a mistake of monumental proportions. Just as it had been when she’d first said “I do,” years before.
“Fool!” She swore under her breath on her way to the bathroom, where she saw her reflection in the mirror over the sink.
“Not pretty,” she said, splashing water over her face. But that really wasn’t the truth. She wasn’t too far into her thirties and her dark hair was still thick and wavy as it fell below her shoulders. Her skin was still smooth, her lips full, her eyes a shade of blue-green men seemed to find fascinating. All the wrong men, she reminded herself. Men who were forbidden and taboo. And she loved their attention. Craved it.
She opened the medicine cabinet, found her bottle of Valium, and popped a couple, just to take the edge off and push the threatening migraine away. Kristi was going to a friend’s house after swim practice; Rick wasn’t coming home until God knew when, so Jennifer had the house and the rest of the evening to herself. She wasn’t leaving. Yet.
An unlikely noise traveled up the staircase from the floor below.
The sound of air moving? A door opening? A window ajar?
What the hell was going on? She paused, listening, her senses on alert, the hairs on the back of her arms lifting.
What if Rick were nearby?
What if he’d been lying on the phone and was really on his way home again, just like the other day? The son of a bitch might just have been playing her for a fool.
The “stakeout” could well be fake, or if he really was going to spend all night watching someone, it was probably her, his own wife.
-wife. Jennifer Bentz stared at her reflection in the mirror and frowned at the tiny little lines visible between her eyebrows. When had those wrinkles first appeared? Last year? Earlier? Or just in the last week?
It was hard to say.
But there they were, reminding her all too vividly that she wasn’t getting any younger.
With so many men who had wanted her, how had she ended up marrying, divorcing, and then living with a cop in his all-too-middle-class little house? Their attempt to get back together was just a trial. It hadn’t been going on long and now…well, she was pretty damned sure it was over for good.
Because she just couldn’t be faithful to any one man. Even one she loved.
Dear God, what was she going to do? She’d thought about taking her own life. More than once. And she’d already written her daughter a letter to be delivered upon her death:
I’m so sorry, honey. Believe me when I tell you that I love you more than life itself. But I’ve been involved with the man who is your biological father again, and I’m afraid it’s going to break Rick’s heart.
And blah, blah, blah…
What a bunch of melodramatic crap.
Again she thought she heard something…the sound of a footstep on the floor downstairs.
She started to call out, then held her tongue. Padding quietly to the top of the stairs, she held on to the railing and listened. Over the smooth rotation of the fan in her bedroom she heard another noise, something faint and clicking.
Her skin crawled.
She barely dared breathe. Her heart pounded in her ears.
Just your imagination—the guilt that’s eating at you.
Or the neighbor’s cat. That’s it, the scraggly thing that’s always rooting around in the garbage cans or searching for mice in the garage.
On stealthy footsteps she hurried to the bedroom window and peered through the glass, seeing nothing out of the ordinary on this gray day in Southern California, where the air was foggy, dusty, and thick. Even the sun, a reddish disc hanging low in the sky over miles and miles of rooftops, appeared distorted by the smog.
Not the breath of a breeze from the ocean today, nothing stirring to make any kind of noise. No cat slinking beneath the dry bushes, no bicyclist on the street. Not even a car passing.
Just a case of nerves.
She poured the remains of the shaker into her glass and took a sip on her way to the bathroom. But in the doorway she caught sight of her reflection and felt another stab of guilt.
“Bottoms up,” she whispered and then, seeing her own reflection and the glass lifted to her lips, she cringed. This wasn’t what she wanted for her life. For her daughter. “Stupid, stupid bitch!” The woman in the mirror seemed to laugh at her. Taunt her. Without thinking, Jennifer hurled her drink at her smirking reflection. The glass slammed into the mirror, shattering.
Slowly, the mirror split, a spider web of flaws crawling over the slivered glass. Shards slipped into the sink.
What the hell have you done?
She tried to pick up one of the larger pieces and sliced the tip of her finger, blood dripping from her hand, drizzling into the sink. Quickly she found a single, loose Band-Aid on the shelf in the cabinet. She had trouble as her fingers weren’t working as they should, but she managed to pull off the backing and wrap her index finger. Yet she couldn’t quite stanch the flow. Blood swelled beneath the tiny scrap of plastic and gauze. “Damn it all to hell,” she muttered and caught a glimpse of her face in one of the remaining jagged bits of mirror.
“Seven years of bad luck,” she whispered, just as Nana Nichols had foretold when she’d broken her grandmother’s favorite looking glass at the age of three. “You’ll be cursed until you’re ten, Jenny, and who knows how much longer after that!” Nana, usually kind, had looked like a monster, all yellow teeth and bloodless lips twisted in disgust.
But how right the old woman had been. Bad luck seemed to follow her around, even to this day.
Spying her face, now distorted and cleaved in the shards of glass that remained, Jennifer saw herself as an old woman—a lonely old woman.
God, what a day, she thought thickly.
Heading for the broom and dustpan, she started downstairs, nearly stumbling on the landing. She caught herself, made her way to the first floor, and stepped into the laundry room.
Where the door stood ajar.
She hadn’t left it open; she was sure of it. And when her lover had left, he’d gone through the garage. So…? Had Kristi, on her way to school, not pulled it shut? The damned thing was hard to latch, but…
She felt a frisson of fear skitter down her spine. Hadn’t she heard someone down here earlier? Or was that just the gin talking? She was a little confused, her head thick, but…
Steadying herself on the counter, she paused, straining to hear, trying to remember. Good God, she was more than a little out of it. She walked into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water, and noticed the hint of cigarette smoke in the air. No doubt from her ex-husband. How many times did she have to tell him to take his foul habit and smoke outside? Way outside. Not just out on the back porch, where the damned tobacco odor wafted through the screen door.
But Rick hasn’t been here in two days…
She froze, her gaze traveling upward to the ceiling. Nothing…and then…a floorboard creaked overhead. The crunch of glass.