An Unholy Alliance
Genre: Paranormal Thriller with Romantic Elements
Date of Publication: January 25, 2014
The stench of decaying flesh filled the air like day old road kill on a hot August night. Reyna Blair folded a handkerchief, covered her nose and choked back the urge to gag.
The medical examiner pushed wire framed glasses further along his nose and looked up. “Hard to say, Officer Blair. This damn heat’s accelerated the breakdown of tissue.”
“Then how ’bout a guess?”
The older man squinted, twisted his mouth to one side, and arched bushy brows over pale blue eyes. “Well, the blowfly larvae are at third instar so I’d say your vic has been dead four, maybe five days. Once I get him to the lab and run some tests, I can give you a better estimate.”
Reyna nodded as her eyes riveted to the gaping wound in the dead man’s chest. Someone split his sternum from throat to abdomen, leaving an open cavity that now hosted an infestation of slithering maggots.
Great. Just fucking great.
Rubbing her temples, Reyna glanced away. The mid-morning sun penetrated her dark blonde hair, raising sweat bubbles on her scalp and provoking an already short temper. She glared at the uniformed Rangers swarming her crime scene like an army of pissed off ants.
Crime scene. The words sounded odd when paired with Purgatory, Texas – a small retirement community cradled in the rolling hills between San Antonio and Austin. So much for living the quiet life of a small town cop.
Reyna had accepted the position of Peace Officer six months ago after an old army buddy told her about the opening. It wasn’t a seamless hire. The mayor didn’t like her and protested publicly when the town council extended an employment contract. Some said he opposed women in law enforcement. Reyna suspected it had more to do with her contempt for his inflated ego.
In spite of Mayor Townsend’s disapproval, and Reyna’s exasperation with the slower moving senior citizens, she’d been thankful for the job. Purgatory was a much needed antidote for her frayed nerves. A place to hide – and heal. A refuge from the murder and mayhem plaguing her adult life. She’d wished for such a place after being discharged from the army.
But as her drill sergeant used to say, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other, soldier. See which one fills up fastest.” Today was a perfect example of what Reyna had come to expect in life – a handful of shit.
“Where’s the law in this town?”
A teasing voice drifted over her shoulder, eliciting a grudging smile from her tightly sealed lips. Ty Carter. Texas Ranger and eye candy extraordinaire. She turned to greet the detective walking toward her. His crisp khaki shirt and creased slacks appeared immune to the heat and humidity. No man should look that good in uniform.
Ty let out a long, low whistle as he stared at the corpse. “What a way to start the day.”
“You talkin’ to him or me?”
He snickered. “From the look of things, I’d say his day ended long before yours started. Who found him?”
She leaned toward him with a conspiratorial whisper. “Agnes Gaines, who graciously served as tour guide for family and friends before deciding to notify me.”
“That explains the golf carts parked on the side of the road. Looks like a damn old folk’s convention.” A lopsided grin lit up his face as he thrust a cup of coffee into her hand. “Iced Mocha Grande. Figured you could use it.”
Cute. Ty Carter was definitely cute. Ever since the tautly muscled detective first sauntered into her office issuing a cocky introduction and a list of services available through the Texas Rangers, she’d joined the ranks of secret . . . and some not so secret . . . admirers. Logic told her he was way too young, or at least he looked it with boyish dimples aligned perfectly on either side of a too kissable mouth.
Five years separated their ages, but Reyna felt decades older. The war had stolen her innocence. War – and working as a beat cop in one of the toughest, most drug infested neighborhoods of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She’d witnessed horrors most people couldn’t imagine and would never want to see – which left Reyna even more confused about why a bunch of retirees would rush to view a decomposing body.
She took one more look at the stiff carcass and turned away. For once, it was a blessing to detach emotionally, even though her army shrink considered it a debilitating personality trait. Admittedly, Reyna had sandbagged the counseling sessions but only because the good doc displayed a superiority complex the size of Antarctica. Reyna had no use for know-it-alls or prima donas, and the psychiatrist demonstrated a proclivity for both.
Scowling with the memory, she lifted the cup of coffee to her lips and took a sip. The lid loosened, flooding the front of her shirt with a dark, icy stain. Reyna gasped, quickly brushed away what she could of the beverage and launched a mortified glance at the bystanders hovering near the yellow crime scene ribbon. God, I hope nobody saw that.
It was the most people gathered in the city park she could recall since starting her job, proof of what she’d suspected all along – Agnes Gaines was a natural instigator. Political lobbyists would pay big bucks for someone with her skills.
Her gaze settled on a tall stranger standing apart from the crowd. Black hair spiked across his forehead as he stared at her with unnerving intensity. Shark eyes. Dead eyes. Reyna pushed her aviator sunglasses further up her nose, camouflaging her scrutiny with the reflective lens.
Whatcha lookin’ at, mister? You know something I don’t? The hair rose on the back of her neck as he continued to watch her. It was as though he could see right through the sunglasses and into her mind.
Massive shoulders filled his long coat, suggesting he wasn’t from the area – or else a complete idiot. What native Texan would wear a heavy duster in the middle of July? He tilted his head to one side, reinforcing her perception he was a telepath.
You’re one strange son of a bitch. The side of her mouth shifted upwards as he flinched. Damn, maybe he really can read my thoughts. The possibility left her more uncomfortable than ever.
Reyna whirled around and nervously kicked up a cloud of dust with the toe of her boot. Instinct told her the guy was involved in John Doe’s murder and her natural senses seldom steered her wrong. So why was she reluctant to ask the big Neanderthal a few questions? She glanced at Ty flirting with a cute reporter from the Austin Statesman.
Because it’s always better to send a Texas Ranger.
“Hey, Carter, I need some help over here.” He looked up, arched a brow as if to say “your timing sucks” and reluctantly joined her. “Can your team handle the crowd interviews?” He nodded slowly. “Good. Be sure to check out the . . .” She started to say “creep” but stopped so as not to influence the detective’s opinion. “See if the big guy has an alibi.”
“What big guy?” Ty scanned the faces over her shoulder before donning a quizzical frown.
“The man in the long coat.” She kept her voice low before shifting sideways to raise her arm and point. “He’s gone. Damn it! The guy’s involved in John Doe’s murder. I know it.”
Ty’s mouth twitched. “I’d sure like to enroll in the Reyna Blair Course on Intuitive Crime Scene Investigation. It’d make the process go a lot faster. By the way, Officer, how do you suggest I word my report to say I know someone is a suspect without substantial proof?”
“Shut up.” Her insides jumped at his teasing, sending a splash of color across her cheeks. Reyna quickly hid behind the edge of her cup, praying the lid stayed in place this time.
“I’m done.” The medical examiner stood up, grumbling as his stiff limbs popped and cracked. Removing his gloves, he wiped his hands on a small rag before speaking. “It looks like our man was killed somewhere else and dumped here. No blood around the body. No papers. I found bruising on his wrists which indicates he was restrained before death. Terrible way to go.”
Reyna frowned. Doc’s assessment validated her suspicion it was a ritualistic murder. The weirdo in the long coat looked like he belonged to a Satanic cult so it all fit. “Thanks, Doc. I appreciate your coming out. Purgatory doesn’t have the equipment or manpower to investigate something like this.”
“No problem. The Texas Rangers are always available for helping out. Do you want to be present for the autopsy?”
Her stomach clenched as Reyna shook her head. “Just fax the report. I’ll call if I have questions.”
He nodded then turned to Ty. “You want to examine the body before we transport?”
“Yeah, Doc. Thanks.”
Reyna clamped her mouth shut as a sharp retort rose to her lips. It was her crime scene, damn it, not Ty Carter’s. Rangers always stuck together. If Purgatory had been better prepared to process the crime scene, she’d never have called him. And after seeing the small platoon he brought as an investigative team, she sure as hell wouldn’t do it again.
While Ty searched the victim’s pockets, Reyna wandered to a nearby hedgerow, kicking under the shrubs with her boot. A faded cigarette package, empty beer container, plastic Wal-Mart bag . . . normal trash.
Something glinted in the grass as she turned away. Removing her sunglasses, Reyna knelt for a closer look, parting the Bermuda grass with the tip of her ballpoint pen. A small iridescent ball lay under a low hanging bough. It was larger than a marble, about two inches in diameter with a glassy appearance. The surface was still shiny so it must not have been there long. Probably a kid’s toy, she mused, scooping the object into an evidence bag. If nothing else, she’d keep it on her desk as a gazing ball.
Reyna shoved the bag into her pocket before turning her attention to the attendants unrolling a body bag. She’d witnessed the same procedure with fallen comrades in Iraq. Biting the inside of her lip to block the memories, Reyna averted her gaze. Friendships were usually short lived during the war, but it didn’t make the final goodbye any easier.
Ty nudged her arm. “That man is staring at you. He doesn’t look very happy.”
She whirled around, immediately recognizing the portly figure of Mayor Townsend. With arms crossed petulantly over a round chest, he glared disapproval. His scowl deepened when she refused to acknowledge his presence by looking away.
It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do but Reyna figured the shit was already on the fan. She’d not taken time to consult the town council before requesting a forensic investigation. What was I supposed to do? Sweep the whole thing under a rug and pretend it never happened? It all boiled down to one thing – money. And this investigation would cost the town plenty.
Reyna watched the hearse drive away, wiping a trickle of sweat from her face. The vic didn’t look like a local but it was hard to say. Putrefaction had morphed his features into a grotesque, bloated mask. Hopefully, the autopsy and dental records would produce a name. It was up to her to find a motive.
A sharp pain shot through Reyna’s temple as her vision erupted with bright pinpoints of light. Another migraine. She needed to go . . . now . . . even if it meant leaving Ty in charge.
Pinning a stiff smile to her face, she struggled to conceal her pain. “Let’s finish up and get outta here.”
He nodded. “I’m with you. We’ll meet up later and write the report together.”
“Sure.” Reyna silently vowed to keep Ty Carter away from her notes. Just because he was cute, didn’t mean she trusted him.
Reyna directed her steps toward the parking lot, inwardly groaning as reporters pressed against the yellow ribbon. They jockeyed for position, barking questions as she moved within earshot. This was the part she hated – dealing with the press. It was like running a gauntlet.
Reyna held up a hand, blocking their frantic efforts to elicit information as she pushed through the microphones. “No comment.”
Damn vultures. She clenched her teeth, staring straight ahead while wishing the tables were turned. Would they impose the same pervasive questions if the victim had been a friend or family member?
Reyna hurried to her vehicle, slid across the seat, and slammed the door to silence their shouts. How did they get here so fast? Purgatory was in the middle of nowhere. Surely there was enough crime in their own towns to keep them busy.
“Oh, crap . . .”
She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and closed her eyes. If John Doe hailed from someplace other than Purgatory, she would have to coordinate efforts with another police department. She didn’t play well with others. Not even Ty. What he lacked in typical Texas Ranger arrogance, he made up for with ambition – which meant he’d do everything in his power to take over the highly publicized murder investigation.
Well, it’s not going to happen. As soon as Doc sends over the autopsy report, I’ll get rid of the good detective . . . and his damn dimples.
Expelling a pent up breath, Reyna sat back and inserted her key into the ignition. She brought the powerful engine to life and backed out of the parking space, carefully maneuvering the SUV around news vans and satellite trucks.
I can’t go back to town.
Her head reverberated with each heartbeat. The thought of reporters camped outside her office left her nauseated. Turning left at the next corner, Reyna guided the vehicle out of town and away from the madness.
Twenty minutes later, she turned off the main road and followed a gravel lane to a small, wood framed farmhouse. It was a rental but came with ten acres of open pasture and no meddling neighbors. After moving in, Reyna considered adopting a dog but quickly changed her mind. Ownership would require full time care, as well as taking responsibility for another life besides her own. She wasn’t up to that kind of commitment yet.
Pushing through the front door, Reyna charted a course toward the bathroom and extracted an orange prescription bottle from the medicine cabinet. The mirrored door swung shut, leaving her to stare at the hollow-eyed woman in the glass. Her thirtieth birthday was less than two weeks away yet she looked much older. Dark blonde hair dangled at the nape of her neck in an unkempt ponytail. Deep purple circles rimmed her eyes, the result of too many sleepless nights. Too many nightmares.
She shook a couple of pills into the palm of her hand before tossing them to the back of her mouth. Turning her head sideways under the faucet, she washed them down with a gulp of water.
The new prescription seemed to work better than the last one although oddly, she’d been experiencing stomach aches. Still, it was easier to deal with the cramps than a debilitating migraine.
Reyna walked across the hall to her bedroom and fell across the bed. “Five minutes, that’s all I need,” she muttered aloud. “Just five minutes and I’ll be fine.” Consciousness was already fading by the time she closed her eyes.
It was a fitful sleep, filled with images of menacing forms beckoning to her from the shadows. Why wouldn’t they leave her alone? A dim orb floated in her peripheral vision, hovering. Watching. It began to move toward her, casting a warm circle of light that banished the shadows farther into the darkness. She reached out to touch it . . .
Oh, God . . . the voices again. No amount of sleep-aid seemed to get rid of them. She moaned and pulled a pillow over her head.
Her eyes flew open in a rush of awareness. She jumped from the bed, her hand instinctively reaching for the pistol strapped to her side. Withdrawing it from the holster, she pointed it at the figure in the doorway. Ty leaned against the frame, a broad grin creasing his face.
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “You scared the shit out of me, Carter. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you. You didn’t answer your cell phone.”
Guilt washed over her as she rolled her eyes and holstered her weapon. “I’m sorry. I left it in my car.” She frowned. “How do you know where I live?”
“I’m a Texas Ranger. I know a lot of things.”
“Yeah, like how to bullshit.” She forced a half smile to her lips before rubbing her temples.
Reyna nodded before quickly adding, “But the new meds are great.” She glanced at the clock on the bedside table. “Geez! I didn’t mean to sleep so long. What’s happening with the investigation?”
“Not much. You were right. Mrs. Gaines played havoc with the crime scene when she escorted her friends around the body. Too many footprints, cigarette butts . . . I’m sure most of it will track back to your local residents. You should cite her for interfering with a police investigation so she doesn’t do it again.”
Reyna gave a short laugh. “Again? I hope this is Purgatory’s first and last murder. Besides, Agnes is Mayor Townsend’s sister in law. He’s already looking for a way to get rid of me. I don’t want to escalate his efforts.”
“Point taken.” Ty dug his hands into his pockets and stared at the floor. “I’d like to bring in a consultant from Austin, Jasper Holliday. He’s retired from the Texas Rangers but has worked some cult cases. I think it’d be worth our while.”
Reyna jutted her chin defensively. “It’s still my investigation, Detective Carter.”
“I know that, Officer Blair.”
Her heart skipped a beat as Ty stepped closer, tilting her chin with one finger. It was odd staring upward into the deep blue pools studying her face. She was tall. But Ty was taller. “Don’t mock me,” she sputtered uncomfortably.
“I’m not.” Ty looked as if he wanted to add something but after a long few seconds, diverted the conversation to another topic. “Look, I’m already involved in the investigation and my bosses want answers. Why don’t we work on this together and keep everyone happy?”
“No . . .”
“Care to negotiate over lunch?”
Lunch? Reyna steeled herself against the urge to say “yes” as she pushed past him. “Not today, Ty. I need to check in at the office. Maybe another time.”
“I’ll take a rain check on the lunch but it’s in everyone’s best interest if we present a united front during the investigation. At least for now,” he added as she stiffened.
Reyna ushered him out the door with non-committal small talk and waved goodbye from the porch, not relaxing until she saw his vehicle disappear on the main highway. The effect he had on her was unnerving.
She’d lived a celibate existence for over a year, blaming post-traumatic stress disorder from the war for extinguishing her passion. Not that it was a concern. Reyna had never been keen on intimacy, chalking it up to her troubled teens. One night stands were more her thing. No strings. No commitments.
But then the dreams started. Dark, primal images provoking unwanted longings. Monsters . . . demons . . . formless shadows invading her consciousness and whispering wicked promises in her ear.
Slamming the door, Reyna stalked to the hall table and retrieved her keys. Ty Carter was not the answer to her awakening sexuality. She wasn’t even sure she liked him that much. He could be annoying as hell – like a rambunctious puppy.
But cute. Definitely cute.