by Rebecca K. Jones
After an attack that left her both physically and emotionally scarred, Tucson prosecutor Mackenzie Wilson is ready to get back to work. Reassigned from prosecuting to public relations, Mack is trying to make the best of her new situation. And though she’s back together with her ex-girlfriend, Dr. Anna Lapin, their reignited relationship has already begun to fray.
When the body of a young woman is found with Mack’s business card in her pocket, Mack becomes an obvious suspect. When support from Anna wavers and Mack is put on administrative leave, Mack begins to spiral. And then another body is found.
Battling to protect her reputation and her job, Mack turns to her best friend Jess Lafayette. Together, they find themselves doing the only thing that they can—investigating the murders before time runs out for them and for Anna.
The Mackenzie Wilson Series Book 2.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"One of the things I find most encouraging about humanity—especially in the dark times we have faced over the last several years—is the human drive to find community. Those interpersonal connections see ADA Mack Wilson and her friends through the most difficult experience of Mack's life so far: being the police's main suspect of a series of homicides. Mack's resilience and investigatory chops are put to the ultimate test, but she couldn't do it alone.
Similarly, writing a novel—especially, perhaps, a sequel—is not a solitary endeavor. Like Mack, I am so very grateful for the team of folks who support me with everything from answering questions about toxicology reports to reminding me how commas work. Neither of us could do this alone."
—Rebecca K. Jones
Just another Tuesday evening behind the bar, waiting for karaoke to start at nine. It’s quiet, a few regulars scattered around the dim room, lit only by the Christmas lights that stay up year-round. We’re off the main drag—don’t get many customers who just stumble in. It’s easy to get to know people, get them talking. We learn their usual drinks, don’t make them waste time ordering. For some of them, the ones who come on a schedule, I even have their drinks waiting when they come in. They eat that up, feel like big shots.
It’s unseasonably hot out, and I’ve got the AC on full blast, overcompensating. It’s not as bad as it was back in the depths of summer, but it’s still bad enough that I send Willow to bus the tables on the patio rather than risk sweat stains. Appearances matter in this job. No one wants to get their drinks from an ugly bartender, and I live on tips. I buy a stack of new shirts three times a year, when the old batch is bleached to the point of no return. It pays to look sharp.
I find myself watching a couple so clearly on a first date it makes my teeth hurt. They’re out of place, too young for this bar, and one of them can’t keep their hands off their phone. They can’t pay attention to the other one for more than a couple seconds at a shot. Either the date is going really poorly, or they’ve got some ADHD they need to address. Or both, I guess. I wonder if they’re even old enough to drink and remember that I don’t care. I’ve had this place a couple years, and in all that time the cops have never pulled an ID check. Never seen anything like it any place else.
As the door swings open, I glance up, hoping it’s her before I see her. It is. A slow smile spreads across my face. She’s a regular, yeah, but she doesn’t keep to a schedule. I’ve known her ten years, since she was just a kid. The days of her crashing in my office are long past, but we still keep in touch. I’ll text her, call her, but she’s bad about responding. Usually, I just have to wait until she comes in. Like tonight. Sometimes, she’ll come in a couple nights a week for three or four weeks in a row, then disappear for two or six or long enough that I’ve almost forgotten her by the time she pops back in. But I’m always glad to see her. Watching her walk in is almost as nice as watching her walk away. I wonder who’s going to join her tonight. It’s too much to hope that she’s here for me. Her friends are pretty, nice, and they make for a laugh, but they’re a distraction.
She smiles back, and I fill a pint glass with Angry Orchard and slide it to her with a wink. She blushes. Not to brag, but I know the effect I have on women, and this one is no exception. The scar on her cheek is new, red and angry against her skin. It doesn’t look like a casual injury. It looks like someone hurt her. I feel a surge of anger, a swell of rage that I breathe through. I don’t let her see my reaction.
“Long time, Pumpkin,” I say, my voice friendly.
She raises her glass and salutes me. “Too long. I missed you, and this place.” She takes a deep pull on the drink and sweeps her long blond hair over one shoulder. She’s gotten a tan since I last saw her. Taking advantage of the nice weather while it lasts. The silver chain around her neck reflects the overhead light. I can’t quite get a look at the charm. It’s tucked under her black Henley shirt, unbuttoned just enough to give me a peek at cleavage. Teasing.
She nods. “Same peanuts, brand-new circus. You?”
Some jerk down the bar gestures to get my attention and I grimace, performing for her. Just a little. Just enough to keep her interested. I’ve known her so long—I know what works. She winks as I head that way.
I’m interrupted by more patrons, clamoring for beer and our two-for-one well drink specials. Animals, all of them. I don’t drink, myself. Never developed a taste for the stuff. By the time I get back to pour her next drink, it’s crowded and loud. The heat rolls off people, and I’m sweaty despite my best efforts. A trio of frat bros commandeered the stage half an hour ago wailing country music released long before they were born. I grin and bear it, although I’m surprised this DJ even has these songs in her catalog. More people means more drinks, and the sweatier they get the more refills they order. I never fudge the receipts or their change. It’d be stupid to get caught making trouble for such a small payoff. I just keep making eye contact, smiling, and watching the singles roll in.
The next time I swing by, Pumpkin’s not alone. A young—very young—redhead who I’ve never seen before is leaning into her, and I can’t tell if they’re pressed together so they don’t have to shout, or for some other, less innocent, reason. The redhead’s got a black tank top on under an open leather jacket, and it’s way too revealing. She has her chest right up against the other woman’s arm. If Pumpkin looked down, she might see a nipple. The redhead is talking directly into her ear. Pumpkin seems uncomfortable, and my backup bartender must see a chance to play the hero.
“Get you another?” he says, pointing at her empty glass.
“Make it two,” the redhead says, throwing a twenty on the bar. She means to be cool, but her execution is flawed. It looks like she’s never tried that trick before, and I bet she won’t try it again any time soon. The bill lands in a puddle of some asshole’s spilled G and T. He frowns and picks it up between finger and thumb, showing her—showing both of them—his disdain. He wipes the bill on a bar towel.
“Can I see some ID?” he says.
She throws an ID—it can’t be hers, she’s too young, but who can really care—into the same puddle. He glances quickly at the card and silently fills two pint glasses.
I get called away before he’s formulated his retort, and the next time I look over, Pumpkin has slipped something into the redhead’s hand. She looks stern. Still hot, but mad, almost, and the kid looks disappointed, like she was expecting something more. She polishes off her drink and disappears into the crowd. Pumpkin follows her, and I lose sight of them as I rush to satisfy the vultures, already rowdy even though it’s not nine thirty yet.
Pumpkin comes back, upset. Her face is red, and it looks like maybe she’s been crying. Her mascara is smudged. Still the prettiest girl in the place, though.
“She a friend of yours?” I say when I get back to my favorite spot at the bar, right in front of her.
She shrugs and starts to speak, and then someone says “Mack!” and she spins at the same time I glance up toward the voice we’ve both heard.
It’s Anna. Haven’t seen her here in a long time. Thought she must not like me, or maybe she just hates the bar. Haven’t exactly been mourning her absence—I’ve been getting Mack all to myself when she deigns to come in at all.
“Hey, Doc,” Mack says with the biggest smile I’ve seen from her in a long, long time. She runs her hand up the sleeve of the brunette’s leather jacket and pulls her closer by the back of the neck. There’s an easy familiarity born of habit, but—last I heard—they’d been broken up for years.
“Can I get some help here?” one of the wannabe cowboy karaoke stars shouts from the other end of the bar. I’ve never been less interested in doing my job but move reluctantly down the rail.
When I look back, they’re still kissing. The next time I look, they’re gone.
Mackenzie Wilson groaned as she faced the stack of boxes in front of her. No matter how many the tall blonde unpacked, their number didn’t seem to decrease.
“You have too many books,” Dr. Anna Lapin said, removing her Astros cap and wiping the sweat off her face with the hem of her Michigan State T-shirt. “When you said, ‘Come help me organize the office,’ I pictured some light unpacking of files, not building your own legal library.”
Mack was distracted by the sight of the psychologist’s tanned stomach and set the books she was holding on the ground. “Way too many.” She looked at the shelves that lined her new home office, already half-full, and gathered her long blond hair in her fist. “I maybe should have listened to you when you said to donate some before the move. I guess it’s too late now—they’re already here! Want to take a break?”
Anna grunted and reached for another box. Like the others they had unpacked that morning, this one was labeled BOOKS, but it was lighter than a box of books should have been.
“What’s in here?” she asked, pulling the lid off.
Mack peered over her shoulder and shrugged, then pulled a brown expando-file out of the otherwise empty box. She opened it.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “I know what this is. It’s the case file on the girl from the desert. I was wondering where this got to.”
“What girl from the desert?” Anna asked.
“I might not have told you about this one,” Mack said. “I think you were out of town when they found her, and the case never went much of anywhere, but I was obsessed with it when it happened.” She looked around the room. The desk chair and futon were still covered with boxes, and the ceiling fan wasn’t cutting the heat in the south-facing room. “Let’s take a break. Do you want a beer?”
Anna looked at her watch. “Isn’t it a little early to start drinking?”
“Suit yourself,” Mack said. “But it’s a long story.”
Once they were settled on Mack’s new living room couch with bottles of Kilt Lifter and the case file between them, Mack pulled a school photo out of the file. The girl was pretty, in a bland sort of way—light brown hair curled for the photo, freckles across her upturned nose, a winning smile.
“This is Sabrina Fisher. She was sixteen when this photo was taken. A year before her murder.”
Mack pulled six more photos out of the file and spread them on the coffee table. She tapped on one, showing a skinny young white man in a blue tank top pointing away from the camera into the desert. The picture was blurry. It had been taken at night with the camera’s built-in flash.
“Back in 2011, this guy and his girlfriend were riding ATVs in the desert, out by Rita Ranch one night. You know, like people do. The girlfriend saw what looked like a bonfire, so they rode up to it, just curious, but when they got close they saw that a human body was burning. They called it in, thankfully. By the time police got out there, they’d put the fire out by shoveling dirt on the body, which—”
“Which eliminated any trace evidence,” Anna finished.
“What was the cause of death?”
Mack took a long swallow of her beer. “Inconclusive,” she said. “The medical examiner thought maybe strangulation, because the hyoid bone was damaged, but he couldn’t rule out drugs or just about anything else, because of the state of the body.”
“How did you get involved?” Anna was fanning herself with a travel magazine that had been sitting on the coffee table, her olive skin flushed from the heat of the office. Mack watched a bead of sweat roll down her forehead and lost her train of thought. Anna nudged her. “Easy, there. Focus. How did this turn into your case?”
Mack shook her head. “Just luck of the draw. I was the on-call attorney that night, and they wanted a prosecutor to come see the scene, get a sense of where it happened. I know prosecutors hate going to scenes, and I’ll deny it if you repeat this, but it was actually super helpful. It’s really desolate out there, and it’s a miracle those kids saw the fire. If they hadn’t, the body might never have been found. But then I went to the autopsy, watched them interview the people who found her, and got hooked. Something about her just spoke to me.”
Anna paged through the reports in the file. “Anything interesting from the autopsy?”
“Lots,” Mack said. “This killer was careful. He’d cut off her fingertips and smashed her face up pretty bad.”
“No prints and no dental records,” Anna said.
Anna tilted her head, thinking. “This wasn’t his first crime. It was too clean for a newbie.” Mack loved talking cases with Anna. It was so nice to be able to talk about anything, no matter how gruesome, without worrying that she was going to offend the other woman. Most people didn’t want to listen, but Anna usually would. Anna’s career as a forensic psychologist, dealing with the full spectrum of human monsters, made her comfortable brainstorming cases, unlike a civilian, who could be forgiven for shying away from talking about murders on a Saturday morning.
“That’s what we thought, too. But the medical examiner still did a rape kit, despite the condition of the body, and actually got lucky. One sperm in the vaginal vault.”
“Whoa! Very lucky! Not to interrupt your story, but I’ve told you about the defense attorney who asked me in an interview if it was true that vaginas were fireproof?”
Mack laughed, sputtering through her mouthful of beer. “You have,” she said, “but it makes me laugh every time. And, hey, this time he was almost right! Just the one sperm, but, luckily, enough to get a profile.”
“Not in CODIS,” Mack said, referring to the national database of DNA from convicted felons and unsolved cases. “They wanted to run the guy who found her, just as a rule-out, but they wound up not being able to find him again by the time they wanted his info.”
“Did he give fake contact info to police?” Anna asked. “I mean, it is pretty weird that he found the body and then disappeared. Did they ever find him?”
Mack shrugged. “No idea if he lied, or just moved and didn’t keep in touch. I mean, people move. But they never found him, and it seemed like maybe he had something to hide, right? They looked for him and the girlfriend, and never found anything on either of them. But, like, maybe patrol wrote their info down wrong, or maybe they lied for some totally innocent reason like they were drug users, who can know?”
They sat quietly, drinking their beers. Mack remembered this case so clearly. It was the first time she’d ever seen a dead body outside of the morgue. She hadn’t even wanted to go, had been woken up by the phone call and “asked” to drive thirty minutes out into the desert. The scene was bad—the stink of the burning body, the crunch of soil beneath her shoes as she walked from the air-conditioned SUV into the blazing desert, the knowledge that no one in fifty miles could have seen what had happened there. Even on scene, she knew it would wind up being a cold case. There was no way they’d be able to pin it on anyone, even if they could find a legitimate suspect. After the autopsy, Mack went home and spent an hour in the shower, trying to get the sickly stench of death off her skin and especially her hair.
Anna pointed at Sabrina’s school photo. “So how does she come in to it?”
“Right. So we needed to ID the girl. There was a little, like, not a purse, but almost a pouch that had been burned with her. There was a school ID card that was partially burned, but we could tell it was from Sahuaro High. We went to the school, cross-referenced attendance records with missing person’s reports. Hit on Sabrina. The medical examiner found traces of an accelerant on the body, but we were still able to get DNA, and Sabrina’s mom Susan gave us Sabrina’s toothbrush.”
Mack cleared her throat.
“That meeting with Susan was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do. Sabrina had fallen in with some stoners, was starting to act out. She ran away three days before they found her body, and Susan blamed herself. Said if she hadn’t been so hard on Sabrina for missing curfew, she never would have been killed. It was the first time Sabrina had ever been late, but Susan thought she needed to take a hard line, keep her from going down the wrong path. Nothing I said eased her guilt. I’d never understood the term ‘wracked with grief’ until that afternoon.”
Anna scooted closer to Mack on the couch and put an arm around her shoulder, pulling the blonde tight against her side. Mack relaxed against her.
“So it’s still unsolved?”
“Uh-huh,” Mack said. “We never got any leads. We talked to Susan, talked to Sabrina’s friends at school. No one came up as a possible.”
Anna pursed her lips and rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand. “The attempts to disfigure the corpse suggest that the killer didn’t know the victim. Disfiguring isn’t a thing people typically do to a loved one or intimate partner. But I’m sure you talked to the boyfriend?”
“None to talk to,” she said. “Sabrina was gay. Newly out. Single, as far as anyone knew.”
“A woman didn’t commit this crime.”
“Yeah. That’s what we think, too.”
“This is a terrible case, Mack, but why did it hit you so personally?”
“I’m not sure. It was the first homicide scene I ever went to. I think you always remember your first. She was so young, and gay, so I guess I identified with her. She had so much potential, and it was just crushed for no good reason. I hate that I never got a resolution for her.” Mack reached for the file and pulled out a stack of greeting cards. “Every year, Susan sends me two cards—one for Christmas and one for Sabrina’s birthday. She says she knows I still care about her daughter and if—you know and I know that prosecutors don’t solve cases—but Susan says if anyone is going to solve it, it’ll be me.”
Mack couldn’t begin to explain how many hours she’d spent with these detectives, trying to help them develop this investigation. How many late nights she’d spent with the autopsy photos just trying to find some new detail. Eventually, though, other cases claimed her attention. Other victims cried out for justice, and she took the path of least resistance, devoting her time to the cases she knew she could win. It must have been two years since she’d last looked in this file, other than to add Susan’s new cards to the others.
She rubbed Anna’s knee and leaned against her shoulder. She closed her eyes. Her girlfriend smelled like laundry detergent and perfume and something else that was just Anna. “We should get back to it, I guess.”
Anna smiled and stood, pulling Mack with her. “Susan definitely got one thing right!” She kissed Mack firmly before walking toward the office. “If anyone can solve this, it’s you. She’s lucky to have you on her side.”
Mack reassembled the case file and placed it in a desk drawer, pausing one last time over Sabrina’s school photo.
“Hey, maybe that’s an upside of this new job,” she said. “Maybe I’ll finally have time to figure this out. Give Susan some peace.”
Give myself some peace, she thought, but did not say.