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On the outskirts of San Diego, the bodies of two young women are discovered. They have no names, no IDs, but one of the Jane Does holds a note bearing the name, “Alice Vega.” The police and FBI reach out to Vega, a private investigator known for finding the missing. Fearing the possibility of a human trafficking ring, Vega enlists the help of her one-time partner, former cop Max “Cap” Caplan.
Despite a case with so few leads, Alice Vega is a powerful woman whose determination is matched only by her intellect, and, along with her partner Cap, she will stop at nothing to find the Janes’ killers before it is too late.
Louisa Luna is writing new classics of crime fiction, and her partnership of Vega and Cap is rightfully joining the pantheon of the most memorable thrillers.
At some point I was asked what's the one thing you need to know about Alice Vega, and I said, "She's not afraid of pain or death," and in that moment, I realized I was also talking about my mother.
This is for my mom, Sandra Luna, once again.
meet our girl: seventeen, arrived here a year ago from a rough and dusty town in Chiapas, considered pretty by most standards because she is young, her face unmarked by scars or wrinkles, her body boasting the tender snap of fresh muscle. Our girl's brain, on the other hand, is at war with itself and others: with memories of her mother's worry and her father's pain, subtle with her own simmering meditations on sex and violence, with fear of all the men that come through the door with their eyes so stark and full of want it's like they've eaten her up before they've even selected her from underneath the butcher's glass.
Our girl walks in bare feet, unsure if she is dreaming. Her dreams these days are collisions, collages, bursts of fire and color that all start normally enough—she is playing paper dolls with her sister on the porch under the umbrella with one panel missing, or fluffing up yellow rice in a pot right after it's done steaming. But then they turn; the dolls become scuttling cockroaches in her hands; the rice bowl fills with blood; her own teeth grow into blades and shred her tongue to streamers.
The house is divided, two floors: the ground floor, where she and the other girls sleep on towels side by side in the bedroom they share, and watch TV and wait in the living room; and there's downstairs full of boxes that pass for rooms—no windows, no air. The working rooms.
Then there is the garage, which is separate from the house, but there are no cars inside. There is just a table and some machines and tools. Our girl hasn't been there yet but this is what she's heard. Only girls who cry and act stupid are taken there and our girl keeps her head down and does what she's supposed to do. She doesn't ask questions and doesn't make trouble, but she watches everything.
She avoids the bosses. Coyote Ben is easy to avoid because he comes and goes, although when he's around and there's no work he grabs the hair at the back of her neck and whispers in her ear. He speaks English so she doesn't really understand everything he says, but she knows he doesn't expect her to respond. He lets her make the drinks.
Fat Mitch is always there, and he's got the gun on a belt that looks like it's strangling all the fat on his stomach. He has named the gun, Selena, after a singer, and he is always reminding the girls the gun is there. He'll say things in Spanish like "Selena got a lot of sleep last night and wants to have some playtime today." And then there's Rafa.
Rafa is the one who takes the girls to the garage. Fat Mitch tells them Rafa only does what he does because he has to, but our girl doesn't buy it. She knows Rafa does it because he likes it. It's not like on a farm when they make the runtiest worker shoot and drown the sick animals to toughen him up. The house may be a farm but Rafa's no runt—he's bigger and stronger than Fat Mitch, and our girl has heard he smiles when he does what he does to the girls in the garage. That is what they get when they act stupid.
Our girl's not stupid, and she stays away from the stupid girls: Isabel, Chicago, Good Hair. They cry and try to steal food. Stupid. The girl called Maricel is new, one of the girls from the city, and while it's usually not a good idea to get to know the new girls, our girl actually likes her and Good Hair both. In another time and place they may have all played card games and shared secrets about boys in their class. Instead they wait to be picked. Which is better than the alternative. If a girl doesn't get picked from the TV room for a month, she's out, not taken to the garage—out out, out of the house and dropped somewhere in the desert because she's not worth the Wonder bread.
Our girl has learned a little English here and there from TV. She pays attention to the American news. Police, homicide, catch, release. She watches a news show about a boy who looks her age, and Mexican too, but American. She tries to wrap her mouth around a word the newswoman keeps repeating, which sounds like something about a duck flying up. Duck-ted. Up-duck-ted. The boy talks to the newswoman, points to a picture of a fish tank. Then there is another woman, not the newswoman; 2014 it says in the corner. Her name is at the bottom of the screen. Our girl notices: American first name, Mexican last name. She looks like she is police. Or a lesbian. Or a gangster. She wears black clothes and sunglasses.
Back to the boy. Over and over he says the same thing: "She safes me, she safes me." Our girl watches the boy's top row of teeth, the way they scrape his bottom lip as he cries. The word is not "safes." It's "saved." "She saved me," the boy says, again and again.
Our girl watches Maricel get up close to the TV. Maricel doesn't take her eyes off it. The boy on the screen says, "She saved me. Alice Vega, she saved me." Maricel begins to cry, along with the boy. Our girl watches her and realizes her own hands are shaking.
Our girl has a thought out of nowhere: you treat us like dogs; we're going to act like dogs. A map unfolds in her mind, square by square. She saved me, the boy says. She saved me.
alice vega watched the dogs, and the dogs watched the meat.
There were six different kinds, some shaky fluff balls, some big with long jaws, all tied by their leashes to the same bike post outside a Reno's Coffee, all watching the couple at the table nearest them eating breakfast sandwiches. Mouths open, tongues flapping like flags. Vega didn't know much about dogs, about what variations in their gene pools led to different breeds, but they all wanted that bacon, even if they weren't hungry.
Vega sat at a table without an umbrella, and it was hot and just after nine in the morning. It was pretty and bland here. The streets were clean; the people were attractive in a nonflashy way; the dogs were groomed. It was not unlike where Vega lived, except in her town there were a few more homeless people, a few fewer luxury car models. A little rougher by only a couple of ticks. California was its own planet, and Vega had lived there her whole life, so most of it felt like familiar terrain to her. San Diego was not an exception.
When the time on her phone read 9:50, she threw away her cup, took one last look at the dogs, and left. Drove the half mile to the County Medical Examiner's office and pulled into the lot. It was a building made of sandy yellow brick, looked like half hospital, half elementary school. Vega scrolled through the email on her phone, the name, the address.
She stepped out of the car, cracked her neck, twisted her back one way and then the other like a licorice stick. Felt better. Thirty-five isn't that old, she thought, not defensively to anyone in particular.
Through the automatic doors, where it was cool inside, clean, a diamond pattern on the linoleum underfoot. A guard sat on a folding chair at a desk watching the feed from the security cameras. He was not surprised to see Vega; he had seen her walk from the parking lot.
"Can I help you, ma'am?" he said. He was young and black, the faint line of a mustache on his upper lip.
"I'm here to see Emilia Paiva," said Vega.
"Your last name Vega?"
Vega nodded, produced her driver's license. The guard took it and wrote down her information on a log in front of him. He pressed two buttons on the phone and handed her license back to her. Vega glanced at the screens: clipped office park lawn, cars parked, a line of white vans, two staff wearing scrubs unloading the contents—gurney and bag.
Then a woman's voice: "You're Alice Vega."
Vega looked up, and there she was, Latina, with a youthful face, a line of straight dark bangs over her forehead. She was a little shorter than Vega and weighed about two fifty. She wore her blue lab coat unbuttoned, a Deadpool T-shirt underneath.
"Ms. Paiva?" said Vega.
"Mia," she said cheerily. "Everyone calls me Mia."
They shook hands.
"That's Sam," she said, nodding to the guard. "He smiles once a week."
"There it is," said Mia, pointing. Back to Vega: "This way."
Vega followed her through gray swinging doors, into a hallway with a long window on one side, facing a line of parked cars. They walked toward another set of swinging doors at the other end. Mia moved surprisingly fast for carrying so much weight on her hips.
"How long've you worked with Rowlie?" she said to Vega.
"Roland Otero?" said Vega. "I haven't met him yet. He wanted me to see you first."
"Ohhh," sang Mia, pushing through the second set of doors. "I get it now."
Vega didn't ask what it was that she got. Now the hallway split—on one side were transparent sliding doors; inside were technicians at counters and desks with microscopes, boxy analysis equipment, laptops. TOXICOLOGY, read the small sign. On the other side was a narrower hallway than the one they just came from, a set of stairs leading down. Vega followed Mia, who kept talking.
"Hot out there, huh?" she said, and then without pausing for a response, added, "It's supposed to get up to ninety today. At least we're inside, right?"
Vega put on a smile when Mia turned around. Better to keep her offering information, but Vega had a feeling it wouldn't be difficult; Mia seemed to be a chatter. She pushed through another door at the bottom of the stairs, and here the doors in front of them were steel, a large red biohazard sticker on the left. Mia held her ID up to a key card reader, and the pinpoint light turned green. The doors slid open in front of them.
It was a big room, metal racks with six shelves apiece lined the walls, white polyethylene bags with a black zipper down the middle on every one, each containing a dead person. Vega recognized the smell. The vinegar tang of formalin, the heady odor of a meat counter.
"Here you go," said Mia, handing her a pair of safety goggles. "The chemicals might get to you after a while."
Vega put them on, watched Mia put on her own. Then Mia pulled a pair of purple latex gloves on her hands.
"It gets to me, too. I'm one of those people who tear up at everything, not because I'm emotional or anything like that, I just have sensitive eyes," said Mia, as she walked to the back of the room.
She stopped at two gurneys side by side, a bag on each. Vega stood at the short edges of the gurneys, what she suspected were the feet.
"Cutting onions, forget it," Mia added. And then, "Okay. This one was the first."
Mia unzipped the bag. There was the body of a girl, Latina, long curly hair that probably hit midback when she was standing, slender with small breasts and narrow hips. The Y-cut of the autopsy incision, with the two tines on either side of the neck and the line down the middle of the torso. Mia pulled the bag off the body's shoulders so Vega could get a better look at what she was there to see: a cluster of clumsy cuts above the left hip.
"Female, age twelve to fourteen, came in last Thursday. Cause of death was myocardial infarction due to bleed-out due to multiple stab wounds," said Mia, lifting the hip with two fingers to show Vega where the cuts continued. "I estimate she was dead about a day before getting to us. No sign of recent sexual assault, per se, but some labial and anal fissures, as well as absence of hymen tissue. And, notably, a functional IUD in her uterus."
Vega walked around the body so she stood next to Mia, to see what she saw.
"Organs all relatively normal, except one puncture in the kidney."
"Is that what did it?" said Vega.
"Kidneys bleed a lot, so it probably accelerated the process, but it's not like she would've definitely lived if the stabber missed the kidney. No food in the stomach. Here's something for you," said Mia, somewhat bubbly. She pointed to the stab wounds. "You see this scraping, here?"
Vega leaned closer. Between the cuts on the hip and the cuts on the back were scabs close together, some shorter, some longer, like a bar code.
"My guess is that Jane's moving around, Stabber drags the blade, but you see how some are shorter than others?"
"Serrated blade, right?" said Mia.
"Right," agreed Vega. "Anything else about the knife?"
"Not really," said Mia. "Probably sixteenth of an inch, but most knives are."
Mia stood up straight, surveyed the whole body.
"Some bruising, contusions here and there. This one down here," she said, pulling back a bit of flesh on the upper right thigh to reveal several small sunburst-shaped scars. "Looks like cigarette burns to me."
Vega looked at the hands and arms, saw small red gashes near the wrists and on the fingers.
"Defensive wounds," she said.
"Totally," said Mia, wrinkling up her nose. "Stabber comes from behind, girl reaches around and back."
Mia mimed it, wiggled and waved her fingers to the sides, a weird little hula.
"And these," Mia said, moving up to where the girl's head lay. "You see?"
Vega joined her on the other side of the body and saw an egg-shaped, dark red mark on her left temple.
"Some sort of blunt trauma," said Mia. "But I can't think of an object that would make a shape like that. Wooden spoon, maybe?"
Vega tilted her head to get a better look. The skin was raised slightly, looked a little puffy. It reminded Vega of an allergic reaction, a rash from poison oak or ivy but strangely concentrated.
"You want to see the new one?" Mia said.
Mia walked around to the second gurney and unzipped the bag, Vega right behind. This girl had a different smell. Vega took it in at first, didn't fight it. It was strong, musty, had dampness to it. Almost like this one was fresher.
She, the girl, was either older than the first girl or just more developed: fuller breasts, rounder hips, darker and more hair in between her legs. Her eyes were closed, but she had an expression: brow pushed down, off-center lips, an unmistakable scowl. The body was also beat up much worse than the first girl. She had dark brown bruises the size of plums covering her arms and legs, and again, above the left hip, stab wounds, not as sloppy as those on the first girl and more toward the back, only four that Vega could see. No scraping.
"Stabber got better," said Mia, seeing where Vega was looking.
Mia waved her hand over the girl's crotch. "Jane Two. Also twelve to fourteen. Also plenty of fissures, lacerations on the labia." She lifted the hip with two fingers again. "He got three in the kidney this time."
Vega leaned down to look at the wounds, but let her eyes wander to the hand. Dirt was encrusted under the short nails and in the pockets of the cuticles. The fingers were long and slender and appeared to be resting so lightly on the table Vega almost had the impression they were hovering just above the surface. She glanced at the other hand, wondering if it looked the same, and oddly, it did not. The fingers on the right hand were slightly tucked under the palm, as if the girl were just starting to make a fist.
The smell filled Vega's nose again; this time it was all meat, and Vega tried not to think of food, of the dogs and the breakfast sandwich, turkey on Thanksgiving, fish sticks. She bent over, hands on her knees, breathed through her mouth.
"You sick?" said Mia, not unkindly. "Happens to me sometimes, too. Happened last week. I was really hungover, but still."
Vega barely heard her, fuzz filling her ears.
"Try this," Mia said, holding something in front of her face.
Vega squinted at it: a bright white pill.
"Altoid," said Mia.
Vega took it, placed it on her tongue. The mint spiked through the roof of her mouth, and she could breathe again. She exhaled and stood up straight.
"Thanks," she said, lifting her goggles to wipe the wet corners of her eyes.
"NP," said Mia. She looked back down at the body. "Where were we?"
"Were they found in the same place?" said Vega, pushing the mint to her back teeth with her tongue.
"No," said Mia. "Rowlie will give you those details, crime scene stuff. We didn't have any of our people there. But no. Different days, different places. Jane Two we had to clean a lot more. Lot of dust."
Vega walked between the two bodies, looked from one to the other.
"Cause of death, type of victim, but that could still be random, right?" said Vega. "So what makes us think they're definitively linked?"
Mia smiled, round cheeks pressing up against the bottom of the goggles. Brainy squirrel, thought Vega.
"The new girl had an IUD, too," she said, pleased.
Mia paused then, and Vega sensed more was coming.
"I bagged them," she continued, and she pulled two plastic evidence bags from the shelf below the gurney, held one up in each hand. "Copper. From the same company."
"How do you know?" said Vega.
"Name's printed on the coil. Health-Guard."
Mia paused another moment and looked almost giddy, like she had a secret.
"Can I show you something?" she said.
Mia grinned, lifted her goggles to her forehead.
She went to a counter in the corner of the room, where there was a desktop monitor and a microscope. Vega followed and watched as Mia removed one of the IUDs from its bag and placed it on a small plate under the lens of the microscope. She flipped on the monitor, and the screen was white with a blurry image of the IUD.
"I'll make it as sharp as I can," said Mia, peering through the eyepiece and adjusting the lens.
The image grew clearer and Vega stepped closer to the screen. The lettering on the IUD was visible now, the words HEALTH-GUARD engraved on the tines at the top.
"Take a look here," Mia said, not lifting her head away from the eyepiece.
She turned the plate that held the IUD sideways, so the longer tine was lengthwise across the screen. There was something written there as well.
"Numbers," said Vega.
"Yeah," said Mia. "Eight numbers, but you only have to remember the last three."
Vega studied the numbers.
Then Mia removed the plate, and the screen was blank white. She slid the second IUD under the lens, focused again.
"You remember the last three?" she said to Vega.
Mia raised her eyebrows, impressed.
"Very good," she said, tightening the focus as close as she could.
Vega put her face very near to the screen. Identical make of IUD, HEALTH-GUARD printed on the top coil. She stared at the number on the long tine.
"79433525," she read aloud.
Mia lifted her head from the eyepiece and looked triumphant.
"Almost sequential," said Vega.
"Yep," said Mia. "Rowlie always tells me if I notice something, not to wait for him."
Vega listened to her as she walked slowly back to the new girl. Jane 2. IUD 79433525.
"That's smart," said Vega, studying the body.
The scowl, the breasts, one hand with fingers curled, the other reaching out. Vega crouched a little to get a closer look, her face near the girl's shoulder, and thought, Somewhere there's four more just like you, or not like you at all.
Max Caplan wedged a finger in the knot of his tie as he waited for the client, attempting to loosen it. He'd worn a tie most days as a cop but they were always loose back then, always halfway-to-happy-hour style. Then when he stopped being a cop and started as a private investigator he threw most of them away, only pulled them out for weddings and funerals. But now, working for a lawyer, it was jacket and tie on the days he came to her office to hand in reports.
Vera Quinn was a one-man shop, just like Cap. No-nonsense, polished, attractive in a senatorial sort of way. She was possibly the most well-known attorney in Denville, PA, had produced a series of print ads boasting the only sentiment a potential client needed to know: I don't get paid until you do. The classiest ambulance chaser this side of the Allegheny.
Work had been steady for Cap for almost a year and a half now, since he'd enjoyed a brief stint of notoriety after finding two local abducted girls, the Brandt sisters. But no one paid more or as frequently as Vera Quinn, and the work, though not exactly exciting, when Cap was being very honest with himself, watching the numbers of his direct deposits run up, was so damn easy. No skips, no cheaters, just desert-dry interviews with insurance companies.
And he was helping people! On top of everything, Vera Quinn was out to help the little guy. Medical malpractice, car manufacturing negligence, dead bugs in the French fries. The only price was he had to wear a tie once a week, and hell, Cap could do that for no black eyes or pulled muscles, for eight hours of sleep a night. Win-win all over.
"You can go on in, Cap," said the receptionist, in her sixties, a smoker with a voice like a buzz saw.
Cap walked into the office, where Vera leaned against her desk and spoke into a headset with a microphone the size of a pencil eraser. She smiled and waved emphatically to Cap while she wrapped it up.
"You can expect the memo tomorrow…I appreciate your time. Cheers."
She clicked a button on the headset and removed it.
"Whoo," she said energetically.
"Good news?" said Cap, sitting in the chair opposite her desk.
Vera held her hands up above her head like she was presenting a banner.
"Turino settled," she said.
"Already?" said Cap.
"Already," said Vera, laughing. "If I weren't on the Paleo diet, I'd say let's get a margarita."
Cap laughed, in part because Vera was funny, self-deprecating and humble, but also because the job he'd just started was over and won. Easy.
"I guess we won't need Double G's statements," he said, dropping a manila envelope on Vera's desk.
"Hey, let's hold on to those. Paperwork's not signed up yet. Anything of interest?"
"I got two day laborers saying the foreman told them to work fast and cut corners."
Vera sat in her chair behind the desk and rolled forward.
"Just what you expected them to say," she said, pointing at Cap.
"Makes sense. Those guys don't have a dog in the fight. Should we call Mr. Wyse, tell him he can pay for his medical bills and maybe a little trip to Atlantic City?" said Cap.
"Try the Bahamas," said Vera, grinning.
"No shit," said Cap. "That's fantastic. Let's call him."
"In a few," said Vera. "I wanted to run something by you first."
She had a look in her eye like she had a nice juicy secret. It was silly for Cap to be nervous but he couldn't help it. The only other person in the room knowing something you didn't never felt good.
But he smiled congenially and said, "Shoot."
Vera put her hands together and rubbed them a tiny bit.
"This is good, don't you think? Us working together?" she said.
"Yeah, of course, Vera," said Cap right away.
"Your work is impeccable, Cap. Thorough, fast, you have more experience and ethics than anyone in the field I've worked with, certainly."
Cap was embarrassed; he didn't like compliments because he never believed them unless they were coming from his daughter, and then he allowed them to wash over him in a gentle mist.
"I appreciate that," he said. "You know the feeling's mutual."
Vera didn't respond to that sentiment directly, just presented a tight smile and kept talking.
"I've been thinking about our arrangement, and I think we could consider making it a little more permanent."
She let that sink in for a moment. She was a lawyer, after all. Let the other guy do the thinking and the talking; maybe he'll say what you want to hear. But if she was a lawyer at her core, Cap was a cop, and he could play the quiet game too, maybe even better than she could.
He just kept smiling, allowed a marginally confused expression to cross his face.
- On Sale
- Jan 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Hachette Book Group