Latana Ojo lied better than anyone she knew.
She’d never outgrown the make-believe games that filled her days with technicolor drama, a stark contrast to the black-and-white drudgery of the Ojo’s hardworking New York lifestyle. Her older sister’s recent marriage to a wealthy landowner many states away left Tana on the hook for helping in the family business every day after school. Their restaurant catered to high class clientele with five-star cuisine, but Tana wanted more than a future of dowdy hairnets, clunky shoes, and shapeless aprons that Momma wore working her magic in the kitchen.
She yearned for glitz and romance. Her upcoming birthday would be the first chance to spread her wings, wear makeup and high heels, and even a sparkling tiara. Her girlfriends didn’t understand, and thought Tana should be satisfied with the fantastic party her parents were planning. And the fifteen skinny pimply neighborhood boys chosen for her quinceanera court, one representing each year of her life, bored her to tears.
Then she met the elderly but oh-so-stylish Anita Page when she returned to New York for some family business. Papa got Ms. Page to sign a picture for the restaurant, which he framed and hung on the wall by the cash register.
Tana burned with inspiration. She’d be an actress! Not a film star, like Ms. Page, but a theatrical performer, singing and dancing for adoring audiences. She’d escape her parents’ insular life here in Little Spain, wear glamorous costumes, elegant hairstyles, and fancy jewels, and make a name for herself on Broadway. Of course, she’d be choosy when handsome, dashing actors romanced her. Ms. Page attained fame as one of only a handful of Latinas performers, and Tana would too.
Actors lied and got paid to do it. They recreated themselves into whatever they wished. After all, Ms. Page had been born Anita Evelyn Pomares, with grandparents from Spain, just like Tana. So she’d change her name, and transform her dream into reality.
Tana’s own striking blue eyes, honeyed hair, ageless grace, and husky voice rivaled the film star in her prime. Ms. Page noticed it, she said so herself. When Tana confided her dream, Ms. Page smiled with encouragement, but said she’d need an agent to protect her from vultures, whatever that meant. And she autographed a fine lace handkerchief.
She knew her parents wouldn’t agree, so Tana never mentioned her dream. She found an agent, but he only considered girls eighteen and older. One little lie would smooth the way.
Tana practiced for a week what to say and how to act. She knew what to wear. Her quinceanera dress made her look and feel sophisticated and stylish, but she couldn’t wait until October’s gala party. Two months was a lifetime away. Momma and Papa didn’t need to know she borrowed the dress for this most important interview. They’d understand, once she got famous. Success had no need of forgiveness.
She faked a sick stomach to stay home from school and get the night off from work. She’d interview with the agent and be home before her parents knew any better. Tana wore a touch of makeup she’d stolen from her sister while helping her pack for her honeymoon, and the new white satin pumps chosen to go with her dress. The beautiful long white lace swished around her ankles, and the blue sash matched her eyes. She considered but left behind the tiara, fearing that might be too much.
The agent beamed. He told her she looked like a princess. She blushed, and at his prompting she sang part of a song and danced a bit. But he interrupted before she finished her prepared monologue. He praised her audition, but said he wanted more. Something special to prove she was serious. And he showed her what he meant. Right there. On top of the desk.
He ruined her dress. Ruined her dream. Ruined her.
So Tana killed him.
She’d lied to everyone about everything ever since.
Chapter 2 (Present Day)
Angela Day twisted her wedding ring as she perched on the edge of the chair and glanced around the bank lobby. She’d unzipped her parka, and the boots covering her jittering feet still dripped melted snow from the latest December flurries. An oversize bag sat between her feet. The newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, carefully folded, peeked out from the bag. She got the local paper the rest of the week, but always picked up the Chicago paper on Sundays. The story jolted her memory—a name, a single name she’d heard him say—and might mean nothing, or everything. For days, it niggled the back of her mind, an echo barely heard, insistent, insidious. Inevitable.
Peter had always talked her down whenever she got her back up. He didn’t want her to ask upsetting questions that stirred things up. She twisted the ring again, missing him desperately. Peter died six months ago. Now Angela had nobody to talk her down. Only memories, nothing to fill her days, nothing to stop the questions tormenting sleepless nights.
The bank teller waved and Angela clutched her bag to her chest and followed him into the vault. She signed the safety deposit box log—her throat clogging when she saw the last signature. The box belonged to her dead son, Chris. Her husband had been the executor of his will. But Peter never looked in the box, fearing what he might find in a dead cop’s private files. She had had to jump through several hoops this morning to gain access to the box, but Angela couldn’t let fear rule the rest of her life.
She presented her key, then sat at a private carrel. The teller placed the small metal box before her and left. Angela took a deep breath before opening it.
A thick bundle of papers and file folders stuffed it to the brim, nearly overflowing the deposit box. She removed and paged open the first file. Angela caught her breath and gently picked up a small photo. Her insides quivered. Chris stood proud, beaming, beside his somber bride. On the back, in his familiar scrawl, he’d written: When you’re ready, the answers are here. Her chest tightened. She set the picture aside.
Angela leafed through stacks of newspaper clippings, some dating back decades. She scanned the headlines, and none made much sense. She set each in a neat stack, until she came to the most recent. There! That was the same name, and the same face, featured in the news story stuffed in her purse. She fished it out, unfolded it and spread the two accounts side by side.
The earlier piece profiled Clear Choice Laboratories, a Chicago company credited with solving a number of high profile cases by identifying incriminating evidence. A picture of the lab owner, Brad Detweiller, grinned with a cocky smugness while accepting grateful congratulations from Detective Christopher Day.
In the more recent paper, a much older Detweiller hid his face from the camera. He dodged questions about a recent lab error that caused a conviction to be thrown out. The news report suggested an indictment might be forthcoming. After scanning the notes more thoroughly, the speculation echoed much of the concerns raised by Chris’s safety deposit box research.
Angela shivered, and blew out several short breaths, trying to calm herself and regain control. She rubbed her arms, looking around to be sure she remained alone. She’d always assumed her son’s murder had had something to do with his wife’s shady past. His note on the wedding picture supported her assumption. Angela still resented how September had disappeared after Chris’s death. But how was Detweiller connected?
Maybe she was reading too much into this. Chris wouldn’t poke a known hornet’s nest without police backup, she argued with herself to calm irrational worries. If he considered this a private family matter, and Detweiller helped him out in some way, Chris might have confided in… Pulling out her phone, she searched the contacts, and called a longtime family friend, then left a message when prompted.
She shifted in her chair, unable to get comfortable as she read through Chris’s notes from the earliest to the latest. Chris expressed surprise and then outrage. Highlighted phrases painted a dark story of a decades-long conspiracy that victimized dozens of innocent children, including his wife. Angela’s breath quickened. His investigation proved Detweiller played a role, but Chris died before he was able to expose the crime. Had Detweiller killed her son to silence him?
Angela gathered up the files with shaking hands and carefully replaced them in the box. At the last moment, before calling the attendant, she slipped the wedding photo into her purse.
“Who else has access to this box?” Angela watched as the teller secured the box and handed her back the key. “It belonged to my deceased son. It’s been nearly two years.” She steadied her voice. “His widow moved away—”
The woman checked. “The listing includes a Mrs. September Day, but she has never accessed the box.”
“Yes, that’s my daughter-in-law.”
Zipping her parka, Angela hurried out to the parking lot, squinting up at the gunmetal clouds. Once in her car she started the engine and turned the defrost blower on high. As she waited for the ice to melt, Angela pulled out the picture again, tracing the face of her son with one gloved finger. “I know you loved her. You saved September, wanted to heal her.” She bit her lip. “And they killed you for it.”
Angela had wanted to love her daughter-in-law, but prickly September kept everyone at a distance. Chris had finally broken through the woman’s brittle exterior after gifting her with a dog. What was his name? Dakota, that was it. The German Shepherd died trying to protect Chris from whoever wanted to keep this horrible secret.
She rocked back and forth in her seat. It was time for the truth to come out.
On impulse she pulled a pad from her purse and wrote a quick note, then tore off the cardboard backing and folded it around the picture to protect it. She should have done more when she had the chance. But maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe she could still get justice for her son.
Her car slipped and slid in the slushy back streets as she drove to the post office. She bought a card and envelope. Angela slid the note and picture inside along with the safety deposit key. After googling the location on her phone, and scribbling the address with shaky hands, she added postage and sent the card on its way.
Her phone burbled. She took a deep breath before answering the familiar number. “Thanks for returning my call. You’re a good friend, Judge, and I need your professional advice. Before he died, did Chris talk to you about his safety deposit box?”
September relaxed and breathed again once she pulled into the unloading zone at DFW Airport. “We made good time. We can get breakfast once y’all check your bags with the curbside service.”
Combs smiled from the passenger seat and shook his head. “You don’t have to come inside. We’ve got this.” He turned halfway in his seat. “Melinda, help your brother get his stuff together. Willie, listen to your sister.” Combs turned back to September with a crooked grin as the pair unloaded luggage with the usual sibling squabbles. “Gotta love child labor, right?”
She laughed wistfully and touched his hand. “You’ll have a great time. The kids need a break, and so do you. Disney in December heals lots of hurts, ya know.”
“Going to miss you.” He laced their fingers together and leaned in for a quick kiss that warmed her from the inside out. He’d invited her to go, too, and she’d been tempted. But Detective Jeffrey Combs needed time with his kids. And she needed to finish up with the contractors rebuilding her house.
“Text me pictures, okay?” With his ex-wife’s health in decline, his petition for sole custody meant major changes for Combs as a single parent. She told herself that concentrating on his family’s new normal took priority over any other relationship complications.
She’d recently begun practicing yoga to manage stress. It had the added benefit of increasing flexibility, which helped reduce pain from old injuries. Thankfully Shadow tempered September’s PTSD, and she’d not had a major meltdown in months. At the thought, she glanced at the big black dog in the rear of the car. The German Shepherd immediately stood up, shook himself, and yawned, his tail beating a tattoo against the now closed rear hatchback window.
Melinda tapped purple fingernails on the passenger side glass until September rolled down the window. “Dad, are you coming?” The girl tossed her long, curly red hair with impatience. “Kiss her goodbye already, let’s go.”
September blushed and laughed, and the teenager grinned. At least the kids liked her, maybe more than that. Her throat grew thick watching the two kids—an emotion she’d never expected to feel. Surviving a killer’s attack together during the tornado ten months ago had forged a bond closer than many families shared. Maybe by next Christmas September could say yes to a family trip together.
Willie joined his sister at the window. “Take care of Kinsler, okay? I’m gonna bring him a Mickey toy so he’ll forgive me for leaving him.”
September stuck out her lower lip. “Nothing for me?” When his face fell, she laughed. “Willie, I’m teasing. Lia and I will take good care of your dog, I promise.” She leaned closer and whispered. “Dogs always forgive, even without toys. He loves you bunches, even more than chasing squirrels.”
Shadow woofed at the squirrel reference, and Willie laughed, but looked relieved.
September and Shadow temporarily shared an apartment with Lia Corazon at the young woman’s boarding kennels. Once the contractors finished rebuilding her tornado-damaged house, she’d move back into the Victorian on Rabbit Run Road before Combs returned home. The renovated home would have plenty of room for the future September wanted more than anything.
“Daaddee, c’mon already. Bring the tickets! Willie already got your bag, too. We’ll wait for you by the bag checker.” Melinda grabbed her brother’s arm and tugged him away.
September turned to Combs. “Going to miss you bunches. Be safe. You’re really important to me. We’ve got plans, you know.” She coughed to cover the sudden catch in her voice.
“I love you, too.” He folded her into strong arms, kissed her hard and got out of the car. “I’ll see you in two weeks, and call and text as often as I can.” His spicy aftershave lingered when he slammed the door, the thumping sound so final it made her heart hurt.
He walked around the car to her open window, and bent to stare into September’s cat-green eyes. Combs stroked the white streak in the coffee-color hair, and she leaned into his hand. “We’ve still got a date for New Year’s Eve. I’ll give you your Christmas gift then.” He cupped her cheeks with both hands, and she closed her eyes as he kissed her once more, slow, soft, sweet, before he pulled away, leaving her rosy warm and breathless. “Drive safe, September. You know your mom won’t be happy if you’re late.”
And just like that, the warmth fled, and her shoulders hunched. Today’s departure gave Combs a reason to bow out of her family’s early Christmas gathering. Mom insisted, since in alternate years her siblings spent the holidays with their spouses’ families. She halfway believed he’d planned it that way, and couldn’t blame him. Mom expected September at ten o’clock sharp to help with dinner preparation. Her brother Mark and three sisters, kids in tow, would arrive with potluck by eleven; dinner would commence a half hour later, and the interminable gift exchange start an hour after that.
She’d rather go to Disney World. Maybe she could still snag a ticket...
Combs checked bags as Willie chattered about plans for his eleventh birthday celebration at the Magic Kingdom. Melinda practiced the studied indifference perfected by thirteen-year-olds everywhere. September raised a hand to wave, but Combs didn’t see, and the trio disappeared into the busy DFW terminal.
Alone. And this time, not by choice.
For so long, she’d locked herself away from the world. Hell, it had taken her years to change, to learn to trust anyone. Her cat Macy gave her a reason to live, and her dogs—first Dakota and especially Shadow—taught her to love again. And now Combs offered the promise of a future. A normal life.
So she wasn’t really alone. She actually had good friends now, and a big family waiting for her. “Baby-dog, ready to go home?”
He woofed, and jumped from the rear cargo area onto the back seats. The notch out of the tip of one ear, and the white slash of fur down one side of his face added character to his regal bearing. Badges of honor, hard won victories from saving her, and others.
Shadow nosed her hand when she reached behind her seat. “Yes, I’m nervous about today’s gathering. You know what Mom’s like. But I’m getting better, right?” She turned, put the car into gear, and navigated out of the airport.
Shadow watched the North Texas landscape speed by, particularly interested in the pasture land dotted here and there with Longhorn cattle. He pushed his nose into the window’s narrow opening to sample the breeze. September double checked to engage the child locks. The dog had an uncanny ability to open car door windows, and she didn’t want him becoming a furry black missile on Hwy 35. Since he’d taught himself the behavior, she’d put the action on cue. In the past, the skill had come in handy.
Training and experience had matured Shadow far beyond his true age—he’d be two years old in February—although he’d turn into a play maniac given half an invitation. He continued to meet the world with tail-waving joy. September had never met a dog so eager to learn, or as stubborn at knowing (and proving) when she was wrong. After nearly losing Shadow more than once, she wrestled with giving him the freedom he deserved while keeping him safe.
Because Shadow didn’t want her protection. He wanted to live, love, and play. By her side. Wags and kisses—and protection—provided free of charge. And he wanted her to live, play, and love him back. That simple.
And that hard. Especially in her large and complicated family.
Twenty minutes later, they drew near her parent’s house. September slowed, but drove past the empty driveway. She didn’t want to spend any longer one-on-one with her mother than absolutely necessary… And she still had fifteen minutes until she was expected. She made a face. September preferred the company of dogs and cats, and found them much easier to understand than most people. Combs excepted, of course. Lately, Mom had been even more prickly than usual. “What do you think, Shadow? Wanna go get the mail?”
His tail thumped on the seat. Shadow didn’t understand the words, other than the “go” word. But going anywhere with her made them both happy.
During the house renovations she’d rented a post office box, but only checked mail a couple of times a week. Most bills she paid electronically, but for the first time in ages, she’d ordered holiday gifts. This year, she had a reason to celebrate, instead of looking over her shoulder for lurking bogeymen. If the gifts had arrived, she’d be able to add to today’s pile rather than having to deliver them for Christmas proper.
September parked in the deserted parking lot in front of the small brick post office. Shadow stood, waiting eagerly for the door to open, and woofed with disappointment when she left him behind. “Be right back.” She’d only be gone a few minutes. If the packages came, she’d need both hands to ferry them to the car. Shadow’s imposing presence, not to mention his battle-scars, kept strangers to a cautious distance with no need to lock the new car.
The bright blue sky and mild forty-degree temperatures made September yearn to ditch the family obligations and take Shadow for a tracking run. It had been two weeks since their last case reunited a missing cat, lost at a rest area along Hwy 75, with its family. Vacation with pets meant extra precautions. She made a note to post additional holiday safety tips on her blog. This time of year meant a reduced workload for her, but an increase in business at Lia’s boarding kennel. They made a pretty good team, with September’s innate caution tempered by the younger girl’s impulsive enthusiasm.
September zippered her light jacket against the breeze. Her dark hair needed a trim and fell into her eyes, but she’d decided to let it grow out. She pulled on her blue bump cap that helped keep hair at bay. She’d rolled her eyes at the gift from Mom, who insisted wearing a bright blue knit-covered hardhat during house construction could address safety with style. September had been surprised to discover how much she liked the bump cap, and often enjoyed wearing it. Besides, Mom would see it and that could ease the perennial tension that stalked their relationship.
She trotted to the building and pushed inside. She heard thumps and soft conversation from the back of the building when she keyed open her box. A wad of mailings, mostly advertisements, stuffed the box, plus two numbered keys for larger lockers. Yes! That meant packages.
September tossed the ad fliers into the trash. She stacked the three Christmas cards and tucked them into her waistband to open and read in the car. Then she collected boxes from the lockers, balanced them in her arms, and teetered her way back to the car.
“Wait, Shadow.” Before opening the rear hatchback, she reminded him to stay in place. “We got mail baby-dog! Fun presents for the kids. Maybe something for you, too.” September opened the large boxes quickly and sorted through the bright gift-wrapped packages. She kept one package for Shadow and climbed back behind the wheel before handing the loosely-wrapped gift to him on the back seat.
He sniffed the gaudy wrapping, nose-poked it, and grinned with delight when it squealed. September laughed out loud, watching him brace the package under one paw to rip the paper off the new bear-toy. “You destroyed your last one. Hope this one lasts longer.” He settled down with the fluffy brown stuffie between his paws, clamped his jaws around the toy, and half closed his eyes in bliss. She figured the new toy would help keep him occupied during the long day ahead.
“Let’s see who sent cards.” September hadn’t sent any cards in forever. Until recently, she’d wanted to keep her location a secret. And she could count on one hand the number of her friends.
She examined the return address before opening each, smiling at the messages inside. The first, from Doc Eugene, featured dogs and cats as holiday angels. After caring for Shadow and Macy-cat, he’d become part of her extended family. September made a mental note to buy some cards and send a few back. No, probably too late for this year.
The next two, postmarked from South Bend, Indiana, raised goose bumps on her arms. She cautiously opened the first, and laughed with relief. “It’s from Teddy!” She held the envelope out for Shadow to sniff, and he woofed in recognition at the scent. The old man had surprising computer skills he’d shared with her on more than one occasion. “I sure miss him. Says he’s staying with his son’s family while he finishes his latest contract job.” After Teddy’s wife Molly died, he’d left town and hadn’t been back.
Still smiling, she tore open the last card, and then dropped it, hissing with shock. Inside the generic card, a photograph. Sandwiched between thin protective cardboard. Of a much younger September looking frightened, and Christopher Day beaming. Their wedding day.
The back of the picture had a note in his familiar writing: When you’re ready, the answers are here.
“What answers, Chris? When I’m ready for what?” Her skin tingled, and she grasped the steering wheel to steady sudden dizziness.
A thin sheet of flowered stationary fell into her lap, along with a small key. Without reading, September knew the sender. Only one person witnessed their wedding. September forbade pictures, but Chris’s proud Mom found a way.
She covered her mouth with one shaking hand and picked up the note in the other to read silently: I know who killed Chris and it’s not what you think. You need to know the truth. Please come.
Two years ago this coming Wednesday, on December 18, Chris and their dog Dakota were murdered by her stalker Victor Grant. Once his attempts on her life landed him in prison, she’d felt safe for the first time in years.
If not Victor, then who killed Chris—and why? And, oh God, if the killer remained at large, everyone she loved remained at risk. Her family, Shadow and Macy. Combs, and his kids.
Her mouth soured, and she squeezed her eyes closed as her vision turn dark. September pressed both fists to the sides of her head, fighting against hyperventilation as the doors of the car squeezed closer and closer. Her heartbeat thrashed, a beat-beat-beat in her ears that shut out everything.
Shadow pushed forward between the seats. He nose-poked her shoulder, insistent, relentless, until she responded. She reached back with one hand to accept his demand for contact. She clenched her other fist and the key gouged her palm. She concentrated on the biting pain in one hand contrasted with Shadow’s icy wet nose against her other. Slowly, the black sparklies at the edge of her sight receded.
This wasn’t the first time she’d been ambushed by the past. She’d survived each hit, then run away as fast and as far as possible. But this time, she’d run toward the answers. And by God in heaven, she’d hit back before ghosts derailed her future.
September retrieved her phone, and searched for the number she’d not used since Chris died. Surely, it hadn’t changed? She dialed, but only got voice mail. With hesitation, September left a message for Angela Day.
After the family gathering at Mom’s, she’d pack for South Bend. Time to confront her past, and bury it once and for all.