Girls are disappearing from Standard High while the local sex trade flourishes. Their absences are barely noticed in the worst school in Arbor City, CA, where turnover and truancy are facts of life. Kendra Desola, the only faculty member likely to care, is on a leave of absence.
After a student’s lifeless body turns up in a seedy part of town, an immigrant community leader contacts Kendra. What does she know about her missing students’ activities, their families’ illegal status?
Searching for the missing girls, Kendra enters a dark world where passports and flesh are currency. When a second murder puts her in the police spotlight, she is unaware a trap is about to close around her.
Saturday, October 9
Kendra retreated farther beneath the yellow awning and opened a bottle of cold water. The temperature had risen steadily since 8 a.m. when she’d arrived at the park. At the end of the day, would she end up with new customers or just with a case of heat stroke? Hopefully, after the canine fashion show and agility events came to an end there would be a line of customers at her booth. She settled onto a large ice chest embossed with the Waggy Tails logo and fanned herself with a brochure.
This annual Doggie Day event had long been a favorite with higher income dog owners, so she’d jumped at the chance to promote her pet sitting business which had fallen off at the end of summer. While on a leave of absence from her regular job, she counted on the income, but so far the day had been a wash. Along with her competitors, vendors had come to sell everything from grooming services to pet portraits. Kendra’s booth partner had drifted off an hour ago to distribute flyers for Waggy Tails shelter—or more likely, to socialize—leaving her bored, restless, and second-guessing her idea to attend.
A bleat of microphone feedback brought Kendra back to her feet. The organizer thanked everyone for participating and suggested they spend time browsing the booths. Almost immediately, the aisle in front of her teemed with boisterous children, their sweating parents and a wide variety of canines in various states of arousal.
For the next half hour Kendra did double duty, fielding questions about the shelter and publicizing her own dog walking business. At the first lull, she picked up her purse and headed for the ice cream stand. She was waylaid by a bony man wearing shorts and a T-shirt with Bridges printed across the chest in large italics. He handed her a leaflet, saying, “Appreciate your help,” then quickly moved on.
She glanced at the sheet of goldenrod paper, expecting to see an advertisement, but the headline brought her to a full stop. And when she saw the two headshots, the cheerful clamor around her receded as if this piece of paper had carved out a dark and lonely space of its own. After skimming the Spanish text, she turned to the English section to make sure she fully comprehended. Under the words, REWARD FOR INFORMATION, the text read:
The Arbor City Mayor’s office has authorized a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person(s) responsible for the death of Imelda Perez.
On Monday, October 4, at 2:00 a.m., the nude body of the victim, aged 16, was discovered near the corner of Southbridge and 8th Street. The Medical Examiner has ruled this death a homicide.
Also, approximately 2 hours later, the body of a second victim, an unidentified white female approximately 20 years of age, was found at the side of the Interstate near the 18th Street on-ramp. These incidents may be related.
Anyone with information regarding this crime, or who saw either victim earlier in the day is urged to contact one of the following:
Arbor City Police Department: 555-2677 (555-COPS)
Citizens’ Crime Alert Line: 555-8477 (555-TIPS)
Bridges Multicultural Teen Center: 555-4357 (555-HELP)
All information will be held in confidence.
Kendra rushed to catch up to the Bridges man. “Excuse me, I might have some information about Imelda.”
The man ran his eyes over her. An eyebrow went up. Was he questioning what a Caucasian, middle-class looking young female in her twenties could possibly know about the life of someone like Imelda? At another time, Kendra might have challenged his narrow perspective, but this wasn’t about her.
The man asked, “Do you have any knowledge of her activities on October 3rd or 4th?”
“This girl—she went to Standard High, is that right?”
Imelda dead! The immediacy of the death hit her like a punch to the gut. And the second girl’s photo rang a bell; was she also enrolled last spring in the Special Ed. program? If so, like Imelda, she’d been truant more often than not.
The man sensed her distress and asked, “Are you all right, Miss?”
Kendra nodded as she straightened. “I just—I knew her.”
“You a friend?”
“I’m a teacher. My name’s Kendra Desola. She was in my Vocational Skills class. How—”
“Someone strangled her, then dumped her on the street like a piece of trash. If you know who she hung out with, that might help us find who did this to her.”
Kendra shook her head. “No, sorry. I haven’t seen her since last June, but I can give you a few people to call. Maretta Edwards, especially, should be able to tell you more.” She took the offered pen and quickly wrote down several teachers’ phone numbers. She’d call Maretta herself when she got home.
“Well, if you do think of anything, you have our flyer. I’ll get back to it, then. See you.”
She stood dumbfounded until a large poodle bumped her back into the moment. As she swept her head to look around, the sun burned into her eyes and she fled back to the shade beneath her canopy. After frantically rooting through her pocketbook for her prescription eye drops, she finally spilled the entire contents to the ground before resigning herself to four more hours of discomfort. Zipping the purse up again she remembered putting the medicine in her dog walking pack—before making a last minute decision to bring her purse instead.
“Are you all right? I didn’t mean to upset you.”
It was Bridges again. Blinking away the pain, she shook her head. “I’m fine, just too much sun. What can I do for you?”
He held out his clipboard and gave her a self-conscious grin “Sorry to bug you again. I should have gotten your personal information as well, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course.” She bent to the form. When she looked up to hand back the clipboard, the Bridges man had stepped away and was handing out more leaflets. He gave one to a man coming toward her booth with a large dog at his side. Although her faulty vision made people watching a chore, something about him immediately caught her interest. Maybe it was the way he and his large dog threaded effortlessly through the churning crowd without as much as a leash tangle. Was he a professional athlete? When he stepped up to her booth, she had only a second to collect herself enough to make sure her tongue wasn’t hanging out. Golden hair, blue eyes, symmetrical features, and a smile that intimated that he’d invented it just for her.
At that moment, Bridges darted back for his clipboard, apologized for the intrusion and went on his way. Meanwhile, the Olympic god in front of her was reading his copy of the Bridges handout. The smile vanished from his face, replaced by something close to contempt. He crushed the paper into a ball and with an agile movement shot it into a trashcan several yards away. His dog reacted by jumping up for a game of go fetch, but was quickly commanded to heel.
“It’s just horrible what goes on these days,” he said. “No one’s really safe anymore. I don’t know what’s happened to this town.”
Kendra felt her own smile fail. This is his reaction to news about two brutally murdered teenage girls? Perhaps he belonged to the class of people who spent their lives living in a bubble. The silence felt awkward, so she put on her most businesslike smile and, hoping she wouldn’t have to go through the entire spiel again, asked, “Are you familiar with Waggy Tails shelter?”
“Sure am,” he said. His eyes passed from the dog collars the shelter was selling to Kendra’s business cards. “Ah, I could use a dog walker. Do you know if she’s any good?”
“That’s my card, actually, and yes, I am,” Kendra said. “Is this the dog you want walked?”
The man gave his pet a reassuring pat. “He’s a good mutt—except for eating my shoes. I got him from a shelter, not Waggy Tails, another one. They couldn’t give me much history except someone dumped him outside their office with wounds covering his body. He’s a real love when he gets to know you.”
“What a terrible life he must have had! But he looks like he’s getting good care now.”
The dog seemed to know he was the subject of conversation and tilted his head toward his master. “He’s quite spoiled, actually, prances around like he’s a pedigree or something but his ears are kind of funky, see? He must be only half Lab and who knows what the other half is? But we don’t care, do we boy?”
“I can see that.” Kendra hoped the remark encompassed everything.
The man aimed a look at her that made her knees go weak. She cursed herself when her pulse quickened in defiance of directives from her higher brain.
“We certainly could use someone like you for walks. Let me introduce myself. My name’s Roger Rhus and this here is Jackson.” He pressed his business card into her hand.
Roger Rhus, Attorney at Law. She should have gotten a clue about his profession from the way he’d been speaking to her, slowly enunciating each word as if he assumed she lacked intelligence. One of the hardest things about her current stint as a pet sitter was adjusting to being treated like an unintelligent, high school dropout unqualified for a more challenging job. But then, how would Mr. Rhus ever imagine she was really a Special Ed. teacher on a leave of absence?
She rounded the table and slowly approached the chocolate brown Lab, but when she got within arm’s reach, the animal shied away.
“I’m afraid he doesn’t like being touched by strangers,” Roger explained.
Kendra wasn’t sure she wanted a skittish pet for a client. She could handle students with issues, but she didn’t have the training or experience to deal with neurotic dogs. Still, she needed customers and this guy’s Rolex told her that he could afford to pay top dollar. Then again, some of the wealthiest people turned out to be the stingiest clients.
Perhaps she could charge him more if she gave him the routine where she pretended to be so busy and exclusive she’d take only certain clientele. What a crock, but she’d learned how the business world worked. In that respect, she couldn’t wait to return to teaching. “I’d have to see if I can fit you into my schedule. What exactly were you wanting, daily walks or pet care for a vacation or…?”
“I’ve been working long hours recently. Jackson hasn’t been getting enough exercise. Would you be able to walk him once a day for, let’s say, an hour? I hope you don’t charge the same hourly rate we lawyers do.” He grinned at his joke.
She decided to double down and quote him an exorbitant fee, one that would cover taxi fare in case he lived away from the bus lines. She had no intention of telling him she couldn’t see well enough to drive, even if it was temporary. “My fee is forty dollars an hour, payment due at time of service,” she answered firmly and waited for him to refuse or try to talk her down.
“No problem. Do you have references?”
She handed him a Kendra’s Critter Service packet to take with him, although she expected this would be the last she ever heard from him.
“I’ll look over your material and be in touch,” he said.
“I’ll have to make sure Jackson won’t be afraid of me when I visit him at home alone. I may have to spend an hour or two with him the first time before I can get him on a leash.”
“Of course, I understand.”
The Lab heard the word home, shook himself and pulled away. Roger tightened his hold on the leash. “I think my boy wants to go home now. I’ll call you as soon as I check your references. Nice to meet you.”
Mickey Hoffman was born in Chicago, and attended public schools where she acquired the strong suspicion that some of her teachers might be human. She wasn’t able to prove this fanciful thinking until much later, when she became a high school teacher herself.
Before landing in the halls of academia, she worked in a variety of jobs, including computer typesetting and wholesale frozen fish sales.
The author is also a printmaker and painter and resides on the West Coast with her long suffering mate, eight marine aquariums and a very large cat. Mickey is also the author of School of Lies, the first Kendra Desola mystery.
Click here to buy: Deadly Traffic by Mickey Hoffman