Authors: Heather Lowell
Death is the only exit ....
Kelly Martin is a frightened teenage runaway who made a scandalous accusation, then vanished, leaving Los Angeles prosecutor Tessa Jacobi with a ticking time bomb of a case on her hands. When the investigation leads her to chic nightclubs, shadowy business deals and whispers of sexual slavery, Tessa understands that she's out of her league. So she asks for help from a man whose contacts and experience can help her bring Kelly home.
Burned by the system in the past, private investigator Luke Novak plays by his own rules -- and he's not about to change them to accommodate a smart, classy blonde from the D.A.'s office. But when a killer strikes frighteningly close to home, Tessa has nowhere to turn -- except to Luke. Because somewhere in a neon underworld, a young girl is running for her life. And Tessa is determined to get her out, even if it means placing her own life in the hands of a renegade she has no choice but to trust ...
For Matt and Jen,
creators of the Monkey Boy,
and Miss Miraboo.
You done good!
If being raped by a hulking professional football player was…
“An eighteen-year-old girl was raped by a high-profile…
Detective Ed Flynn pushed through the doors of Felipe’s Shrimp…
Tessa verified the address of Novak International, Inc. a third…
“I’m sorry to drag you into this, Ed. As soon…
Several hours later, Tessa and Ed pulled into the exclusive…
Tessa got back to the District Attorney’s office after seven…
“Don’t get too involved in the game. The pizza should…
Sledge Aiken aggressively drove through traffic on the freeway. His…
Tessa pulled to a stop at the top of the…
“Who was that?”
Two people with the last name Jacobi contacting him in…
Tessa knew it was cowardly, but she’d deliberately spent Monday…
Tessa heard a loud, persistent noise and rolled over with…
Luke pulled into the parking spot beneath Tessa’s apartment and…
“Do you want me to drop you at work? Or…
Luke sat in the booth where he’d met Tessa for…
“Please don’t say ‘I told you so.’ ” Tessa fastened her…
“Are you sure you want to leave your car parked…
Ed Flynn leaned back in his chair at the police…
After their meeting with Ed and the others, Tessa returned…
Tessa heard the knock on her door late Sunday evening.
The following afternoon, Tessa was once again seated at her…
“Quit whining,” Luke said. “I’m tired of talking to law…
Tessa and Luke left the Federal Building with Agent McKeltie’s…
“I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with the solution you’re…
“Thanks for coming over,” Luke told Tessa as he closed…
Sometime after midnight, Tessa woke to the knowledge that the…
Tessa woke early Saturday morning and simply lay there enjoying…
“I love your version of a table with a view.”
Just as Ed reached Tessa, she began to move. He…
“What time is it?” Luke asked MacBeth. They were spread…
“I don’t think you’re supposed to mix wine with painkillers…
Tessa woke up at nine on Sunday morning, disturbed when…
“Who were you talking to?” Tessa asked as she looked…
Chantal Francoeur’s first thought on meeting Tessa Jacobi was that…
Luke and Tessa cruised to a stop in her car…
After placing an urgent phone call to Veronica asking her…
“All right, girlfriend. Spill it.” Veronica sprawled on Luke’s leather…
As Tessa and Luke left the parking garage and crossed…
Tessa reined in the urge to throttle Special Agent Peebles…
Carmen Ramirez looked around at the roomful of silent people.
“I don’t know how I’m going to sit on the…
Tessa stood on the balcony of a hotel suite in…
The planning phase of Novak International’s extraction operation continued into…
“Hey, Stoner,” Luke greeted his employee with his customary nickname.
Tessa eased her finger over her traitorous cell phone and…
Tessa got off Bobby’s snowmobile and made her way through…
“I don’t feel good,” Tessa announced a few minutes later.
Luke watched as Tessa and Kelly disappeared in the trees.
Tessa waited until at least a minute had passed from…
“I like this cast much better,” Tessa said to Luke,…
Saturday, February 20
f being raped by a hulking professional football player was the price she had to pay to make it big in Hollywood, Kelly Martin figured she should pull up stakes and head back to Kansas. Even working the Blizzard machine at Dairy Queen had to be better than what she had endured over the last few hours.
With a sideways glance at the huge man driving her home in his Hummer, Kelly pressed a hand low on her abdomen to quiet the burning, grinding pain there.
She was positive Britney never had to do anything like this to get her first recording contract.
Kelly felt tears well in her eyes and pushed the thought away. When that didn’t work, she bit her lip hard.
I will not let this jerk see me cry. At least not again.
Without turning her head, Kelly checked the position of the man next to her in the front seat, then decided she couldn’t move farther away from him without opening the
door and bailing out. Which she would do if he made a single move toward her.
She almost laughed out loud. All of her friends at Central High School in Hays, Kansas, would probably kill to be in her position—being driven home in a luxury car after an evening spent in Hollywood with an all-American hero. Sledge Aiken was the most sought-after celebrity quarterback in the country, especially after his team’s dramatic Super Bowl win last month in New Orleans.
With his slow Southern drawl, light brown hair, and wild green eyes, he would be considered a catch anywhere. When those were paired with six-feet-one inch of heavily muscled physique and a talent for football handed straight down from God, Sledge was the kind of man most girls dreamed of at night.
When Kelly had been offered a chance to go on a date with him, she’d taken it in a heartbeat. After all, every girl in the club was after him. And Jerry had told her going out with Sledge would increase her chances of being seen by celebrity photographers—which in turn would boost her prospects for getting a recording contract.
But Kelly hadn’t known the price she would have to pay. She flashed back to an hour earlier, to the terror and helplessness she’d felt when she realized that Sledge wasn’t going to be stopped by her tears and pleas. When she’d realized that he was going to continue to press her slender body into his velvet couch and take away from her something she would never get back. Something he had no right to take.
Kelly’s lip trembled, even though she still had her teeth clamped around it hard enough to draw blood.
The car turned into a residential area and slowed to a stop in front of a modest single-level home.
“So, are you free next weekend?” Sledge’s voice came out of the darkness, causing Kelly to jump visibly. She had hoped to go inside without having to say another word to him.
She shrugged her shoulders and brought her thumb up to her mouth, chewing on its lacerated cuticle.
Sledge took her silence for agreement. “Then I’ll set things up with Jerry again, okay?”
Kelly shrugged once more and reached for the door handle. It was locked.
“Hey, wait a sec. I got something for you, sugar.” At one time, Sledge’s thick Alabama accent would have made her heart turn over. Right now, it made her skin crawl. If she’d had anything at all in her stomach, she was sure it would have come up right then. But she’d been so ill at Sledge’s house after…she bit harder on her cuticle, then tugged again on the door handle.
Sledge released the locks and held something out to her, causing her to flinch away from him.
“It’s for you. And there’s a lot more where that came from. You’re a gen-u-ine firecracker, darlin’.”
Kelly looked at the crisp hundred-dollar bill in Sledge’s beefy hand. Then she raised her wounded gaze to his for the first time since they’d gotten into the Hummer. She looked into his eyes for guilt, apology—anything. But when he smiled and winked at her she pulled the door open and bolted.
“Aren’t you going inside?” Sledge called through his open window.
Kelly ignored him. She passed the house and continued running down the street in her high heels and cocktail dress, until she disappeared into the darkness of the night.
Los Angeles, California
Tuesday, February 23
n eighteen-year-old girl was raped by a high-profile athlete three days ago, and I get the impression the officers who were first assigned to the case couldn’t care less. They haven’t even brought the suspect in for questioning, let alone arrested him. It’s just not right.”
Tessa Jacobi speared a piece of grilled shrimp with her fork to emphasize her point. She then put the bite down untouched, pushed away her half-full plate, and used both hands to tuck her dark blond hair behind her ears.
Police Officer Veronica Harris took in her friend’s barely suppressed anger and chose her words with care.
“I’m sure the officers were proceeding carefully on the case, Tessa. What reason have they given you for not arresting him?”
Tessa rolled her blue-gray eyes. “They
there isn’t enough evidence to substantiate a sexual assault. That’s why I had Carmen pull some strings to get you and Ed assigned to the case.”
And it must have burned like acid to do it
, Veronica thought.
Tessa continued. “I hope I didn’t wait too long. Apparently the football player involved is out of town and unavailable for questioning. I just hope the creep hasn’t bailed out of the country to Mexico or something. Getting sufficient evidence to prosecute a date-rape case is hard enough without having the rich defendant flee the jurisdiction.”
Veronica pushed aside her empty plate with regret. She was still trying to lose some of her extra pregnancy weight, and so resisted the temptation to pick at Tessa’s lunch. “If the evidence is there, we can make a case. Start from the beginning. Who is this girl?”
“Her name is Kelly Martin,” Tessa said. “What a sweetheart. She’s eighteen, and came to LA a few months ago to pursue a recording contract.”
“Like thousands of other girls, God help them. Where’s she from?” Veronica asked.
“She said she was born and raised in Denver. There aren’t any recording studios there, so she hopped a bus to California. I know it’s tough to make it in Hollywood, but I have a feeling about this girl, Ronnie. She’s got star quality. I could see that the first time I met her, even though she was a wreck,” Tessa said.
“How did you meet her?”
“I was walking my brother’s dog in the park early last Sunday. We went on a back trail and suddenly Roscoe took off into the bushes. When I went to get him, I found a clearing, and Kelly was sitting there in high heels and evening clothes. When Roscoe licked her face, she threw her arms around his neck and started bawling. She was in bad shape.”
“And she just blurted out to you that she’d been raped?” Veronica looked skeptical.
“Of course not. I sat down with her and we talked for a
while. Roscoe is a great icebreaker, you know. One hundred pounds of pure Labrador therapy at work.”
“Roscoe is an oaf,” Ronnie said with a smile. On their first meeting he had taken her down and licked her face clean of makeup in five seconds flat.
“He really likes your moisturizer, what can I say? Anyway, after an hour or so of chitchat, I asked Kelly what she was doing crying in the park. She said she’d had a bad date, but I could see in her eyes it was more than that. She looked like a wounded animal. Her posture, body language—everything was screaming out that this girl had gone through something horrible.”
Veronica had worked with numerous victims of sex crimes in her job with the LAPD, so she understood well the nonverbal clues Tessa had picked up. “Did she finally admit what had happened?”
“Yes. She said she went out on a date with this hotshot quarterback and after dinner he brought her to his house. He then gave her a drink, sat down on the couch next to her, and started making his moves. She was okay with it for a while, but when she asked him to stop he ignored her.”
Veronica winced, knowing what was coming next.
“Kelly said she was sure he would stop if she kept asking. He didn’t. She said she began crying and fighting, but it didn’t even slow him down. She’s a tiny little thing,” Tessa said as she crumpled her napkin in her fist.
“I’m sorry. It sounds like a classic date-rape situation.”
“That’s what I told her. She was shocked—she didn’t even know there was a name for this type of attack, let alone that it happens to young women all too often. She asked how I knew about stuff like that.”
“And you told her you were a prosecutor with the D.A.’s Office?”
Tessa nodded. “When she found out, she just about bolted. She said she didn’t want to cause any trouble, she just wanted to go home. I convinced her this was a serious crime
and that she had to report it, or it might happen to another girl. She said no one would believe her because of the guy who was involved.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s the quarterback for the LA Waves,” Tessa said, naming one of Los Angeles’s two professional football teams.
Veronica coughed as she inhaled her iced tea. “Holy shit! Sledge Aiken? He’s the man Kelly is accusing of raping her?”
Tessa nodded, cynically watching the expression on her friend’s face change to one of utter disbelief. She’d seen the same thing happen with the first officers in charge of investigating Kelly’s allegations of rape.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Veronica said, wiping tea off her blouse. “You have to admit it’s a tough sell. Sledge Aiken is the single hottest commodity in sports right now—he probably has to beat women off with a stick.”
“You know rape isn’t a crime of sex. It’s about power,” Tessa insisted.
“Yes, it is. But I also know that in order to prosecute, you have to make a convincing argument of
the crime was committed. That’s going to be very difficult with a celebrity of Aiken’s stature.”
Tessa looked stubbornly at her plate. “I can do it.”
“I’m not doubting your abilities as a prosecutor. I’m just saying that now I understand why the other officers involved have been proceeding cautiously. And to be honest, Ed and I will have to continue in the same vein.”
Tessa rubbed her forehead. “I know. But it’s so frustrating to watch the police tiptoe around this case just because the accused rapist happens to make his living running around throwing a ball to grown men in tight pants.”
Veronica cleared her throat and went back to the important details of the case. “What kind of physical evidence do we have so far?”
Trust Ronnie to go right to the weakest part of the case,
“Not much, I’m afraid,” Tessa said. “I need to get copies of the file for you, but Kelly said Aiken used a condom. I was able to talk her into having a medical exam at the hospital, but they didn’t get much with the rape kit. Some bruising on her thighs, slight vaginal tearing, a few stray hairs.”
“So basically there’s proof of sexual contact, but not rape?” Ronnie asked.
“Yes. I didn’t mention that to Kelly. I’m trying to be positive, because she needs to know we believe her and are going to help her. Especially since even the nurse was treating her like a criminal.”
“Usually they have a little more tact than that.”
“It wasn’t the nurse’s fault,” Tessa admitted. “There was one strange thing that even I have been questioning.”
“During the exam, an admissions nurse pulled me aside. She wanted to show me something that had fallen out of Kelly’s purse.”
“Drugs?” Veronica asked.
“No. It was an envelope that wasn’t sealed, so when it hit the ground the contents went flying. There were half a dozen credit cards and a wad of cash inside,” Tessa said.
“No, that’s the weird thing. They all belonged to different men, according to the names on them.”
“Geez, Tessa. Sounds like she’s involved in some kind of scam.”
“I know it looks bad. I made a photocopy of all the cards, then returned the envelope to Kelly’s purse. I asked her about the credit cards, but she had no idea what I was talking about. She said the money was for a deposit.”
Veronica was silent as she stirred another packet of sugar-free sweetener into her tea.
“I know what you’re thinking, Ronnie. But I’m pretty good at reading people. Kelly was genuinely surprised about the credit cards in her bag.”
Veronica frowned. “So what’s her story then?”
“She said the restaurant she works at gave her the envelope to give to her cousin, the one she’s staying with. She had no idea of what was inside the envelope, but thought about it and came up with an explanation. Apparently her cousin had some friends in a private room at the restaurant, and they must have left the cards that night. The cash is part of the regular deposit.”
“I suppose that could be a logical explanation. But until you investigate further I’d reserve judgment.”
“That’s one of the reasons I’m glad you and Ed were assigned to the case,” Tessa admitted. “I want Ed to look into the credit card thing, so we can decide if Kelly can be trusted. But everything else about the hospital exam and interview with a rape counselor checked out,” she added.
“What happened after the medical exam?” Veronica asked.
“I took Kelly and the hospital records to the police station nearest where the attack occurred, so she could make a statement. The officers said they’d question Aiken, but every time I follow up I’m told they haven’t done it yet. And really, what’s this guy going to say? ‘Yeah, I’m the knuckle-dragging son of a bitch who raped an eighteen-year-old girl with stars in her eyes, go ahead and lock me up?’ ” Tessa shook her head, causing her shoulder-length blond hair to fall forward across her face again.
“You know he won’t. He’s going to say that whatever happened between him and Kelly was consensual, and she’s a trashy, gold-digging wannabe starlet,” Ronnie said bluntly.
“Exactly. I don’t want to put Kelly through that, but…” Tessa knew there was no choice, given the constraints of the legal system.
“What is Kelly doing now?” Veronica asked.
“She’s staying in LA at her cousin’s house. The rest of her family is still in Colorado, I guess. Anyway, Kelly said she needed a few days to get herself together before she decides whether to press charges.”
“Wait a minute,” Veronica leaned forward. “Why the hell am I coming off maternity leave a week early to take this case if Kelly hasn’t agreed to testify yet?”
Tessa shifted in her chair. “She will.”
“Well, shit. Tessa, you can’t blame the other officers for dragging their feet if even the victim isn’t sure she wants to pursue the case.”
“It’s a common reaction among rape victims. She will press charges, she just needs a few days to deal with what happened to her before she can cooperate fully with the investigation.”
needs a few days? Or
need a few days to talk her into prosecuting?” Veronica asked as she arched a dark brow.
Tessa met Veronica’s brown eyes. “I did have to push pretty hard to get Kelly to go to the hospital,” she admitted. “I see that now. So I want to give her time to learn to trust me—and to trust the system. In the meantime, it’s up to me to fill in the gaps in Kelly’s story. That’s where you guys come in. It means a lot to me to have two officers who deal with major crimes against persons assigned to the case.”
“Has Ed been much help to you yet?” Veronica asked.
Ed Flynn had been Veronica’s partner on the police force before she went on maternity leave six months ago.
Tessa nodded. “He told me he’d look into a few things yesterday. Background stuff. I guess he found something, since he wanted to meet us here for lunch today.”
“He must have a light caseload while I’m out on leave,” Ronnie said with a wicked grin. “Normally he gives all the chicken-shit background stuff to me.”
Tessa laughed at the common complaint of a rookie partner. “I know. He grumbled about doing the grunt work.” Her smile faded. “Seriously, though, it is a big imposition on him. That’s why I was thinking about bringing in a local private investigation firm to work on some aspects of the case. Especially the credit card thing. I, um, kind of didn’t mention that to the police when we filed the rape report.”
“I’m not hearing this,” Veronica said.
“I even toyed with not telling you guys,” Tessa confessed. “But I can’t hold back information like that. So I need to contract a little help to look into the credit cards and get that whole thing out of the way. I don’t want you and Ed to have to spend any time on anything beyond what Sledge Aiken did to Kelly.”
Ronnie blew out a long breath. “It’s a tough call, but I guess I’d go to a private investigator if I were you. Because if we have to look at the possibility of credit card fraud, that will become the focus instead of the alleged rape. We’d have to bring in another department that deals with white-collar crime, and if they hear that Ed is poking around their territory…well, let’s just say that police turf wars can get ugly. Going with a P.I. is probably safest.”
Tessa rolled her eyes. “Please don’t tell me the police would turn a rape investigation into a pissing contest because Ed stepped on their toes.”
“ ’Fraid so. Who were you thinking of farming the investigation out to?” Ronnie asked.
“I don’t know. None of the investigators I’ve used previously with the D.A.’s Office have the qualifications to take on a case like this.”
“Most of the banks and major creditors have private investigators on retainer for this kind of thing.”
“I suppose I could ask around and see which firm my banks use.”
Veronica thought for a moment. “What about Novak International? It’s run by Lucas Novak, who is a former deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He’s got good investigative experience in the major crimes division, plus he did a stint with the SWAT team before going private. If he’s not on retainer with some of the local banks, he’d certainly be able to point you in the right direction.”
“Does he have experience with cases like Kelly’s?” Tessa asked. She got out her black notebook to write down the investigator’s name.
“He should. Most of his business now centers on family issues, custody cases, kidnappings, ransoms in Mexico, runaways. He also has a division that provides corporate security and bodyguard services, as well as fraud detection and prevention. He’s a bit of a renegade, but a damned good investigator.”