Gemini Rising (Mischievous Malamute Series, Book 1)
You go through it believing you are a plain old Joe, or Jane, living a normal, mundane existence.
You pay bills.
You walk your dog.
The point being, you get up every day and do it all over again, because nothing out of the ordinary ever really happens.
Here’s the kicker: Once in a while Life throws in a bit of mischief—kind of like the snarky little brother you wish you could permanently lock in his room, rather than those few cherished times you’ve gotten away with when Mom wasn’t looking—only much, much worse. And because you’re expecting the same old same old, you’re flabbergasted when Life punches you in the gut.
As you crumble to the ground, gasping for air, you might have that notorious ah-ha moment. You know the one I mean. The one where you come to the realization the experience was your wake-up call—a reminder you’re alive and in control of your destiny—and to make the most of it.
The cynic in me thinks it’s Life’s not-so-funny way of reminding you who’s really in control—the punch line being—you only think you are.
Shortly after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, I woke to a start, realizing it was garbage day and I’d forgotten to set mine out. Again. It was late November and though it doesn’t get that cold in this part of the Southwest—certainly not like other parts of the country—the Saltillo tile was chilly on my feet as I jumped out of bed. Nicoh, my ninety-eight pound Alaskan Malamute—still on top of the bed and ever the helpful one—peered at me from under the blankets and pillows he managed to steal during the night, before returning to whatever doggie dreams he’d been having.
Ugh. Someday I’d get my bed back. Today wasn’t going to be that day. The city’s garbage collection truck would arrive in ten minutes, so I grabbed the trash bag from the kitchen and opened the door. It was still dark outside but the moon hung lazily in the sky, providing a single source of light as I moved through the backyard and out the iron gate that led to the alley where I shared a dumpster with my neighbors.
Except for the occasional hum of a passing car on the nearby street, it was silent. With my free hand, I wiped the sleep from my eyes and cursed myself again before tossing the lid of the dumpster, which as usual, was sticky and nasty. Just wonderful. I firmly grabbed the trash bag with both hands to toss it in, but stopped short when I noticed the smudgy reddish-brown imprint my hand left against the starkness of the white bag. I started to look more closely when a putrid metallic stench filled the air, forcing me to focus my attention on the open dumpster.
I swallowed hard and tried not to breathe in too deeply as I looked over the edge, expecting to find a package of rotten meat or at most, a dead animal. I gasped in disbelief and shock at the horrific scene before me.
A girl’s thin frame, clad only in a hot pink tank top and jeans, nestled among the trash bags and lawn trimmings. Her bare arms—flung above her head as if celebrating a touchdown—were a sharp contrast to her legs, which were bent in awkward, unnatural angles beneath her.
Disturbing as her body was, her face told an even more vicious and sinister tale. No, there was no celebration. Someone had made sure of that when they erased whatever smile she’d had—the wrinkle her nose made as she laughed, the twinkle that glistened in her eyes—replacing it with a death mask of pulverized flesh and bone, rendering her faceless. Unrecognizable. Blood congealed in her hair, likely once long and lush, now matted and tangled into oblivion.
Though sickened at the sight, an immense sadness came over me—who could be so cruel, so hateful—to end her life so violently? I clenched my fists as sadness turned to anger.
The blaring horn of the garbage truck disrupted my thoughts. I dropped the forgotten trash bag as I swirled to face it and waved my arms frantically at the driver, who looked at me through his hazy window with disgust. I was clearly messing with his schedule. I ignored the profanities he barked in my direction and continued to flap my arms, begging him to stop.
“Sir, please call 911!” I yelled to him. “There’s a body in the dumpster!”
The worker pulled the brake on his truck, jumped out and joined me at the dumpster, probably doubting my sanity. After a whiff and an unexpected eyeful, he turned away and vomited loudly against my neighbor’s retaining wall. Several seconds later he coughed, pulled out his cell phone and called 911.
Finally, he addressed me, “Hon, you seriously could’ve warned me.”
I shook my head and for once, held my tongue.
Detective Jonah Ramirez stepped out of the cruiser and checked his watch. 4:45 a.m. Man, did it ever get it any easier? he wondered to himself. After sixteen years on the job—eleven of them in Homicide—he knew the answer. Over time, he tried to put the names and faces behind him, letting them blend into one another until they became less and less distinct. Still, the memories haunted him. Drove him. He shrugged as he surveyed the scene unfolding in the alley.
The crime scene unit had been dispatched shortly after the 911 call at 4:07 a.m., so Robert Jabawski and his team were in the midst of their investigation.
“Whatcha got for me, Jabba?” Ramirez asked as he reached the lead technician, calling the man by his nickname.
The stout tech grimaced as he came up from bent knees—an old football injury, he always claimed—pushing thick black-framed glasses to the top of his head before squinting at Ramirez.
“Nice of you to finally show up, Detective,” he quipped. “You bring me any coffee or are you just here to block my light?”
Ramirez chuckled, then handed his old friend the usual offering: a venti-sized Starbucks Pike Place Roast with six Splenda packets and a splash of half-and-half. Jabawski sniffed the contents and nodded in approval.
“We’ve got ourselves a female victim—no identification—with extensive trauma to the face and head. Damage was inflicted elsewhere, but her body made its way into the dumpster before she expired.”
“A beating?” Ramirez questioned.
Jabawski nodded. “Yeah, it’s looking that way. There was a significant amount of rage driving this perp. Girl’s got no face left. Here, see for yourself.” The tech moved a few feet to where two members of his team were working.
Death filled his nostrils as Ramirez followed Jabawski to the dumpster. Though he’d grown accustomed to her pungent fragrance over the years, it was Death’s indiscriminate viciousness that set him on edge. As the techs continued to work, he leaned in to observe her current reaping. Jabawski had been right, Death had been brutal—savage even—as she snatched the girl’s life into her rakish clutches. Triumphant, no doubt, as she claimed her victory, despite the means with which she obtained it. He knew it was her way. Death—like Life—didn’t play fair. Ramirez shook his head in frustration and turned his attention back to Jabawski.
“Anything to work with yet?” he asked.
“We’re still collecting, but it’s not promising,” Jabawski replied somberly. “We’re working with a dumpster and an alley, not exactly a CSU’s dream.”
“Witnesses?” Ramirez prompted.
“Nope. The owner of the house directly behind us found the victim while taking her trash out. Her name is Arianna Jackson. City’s trash guy arrived within a minute or two after that. She waved him down and got him to call 911. Anyway, he’s over by his truck. Despite having chucked his morning McMuffin all over the wall, he has quite a mouth on him. Ms. Jackson is with your guys in her backyard.” Jabawski thumbed over his left shoulder.
As Ramirez started in that direction, Jabawski called after him, laughing, “Watch out for the big bad wolf, he’s got a mouth on him, too.”
Everything was moving in slow motion. Or at least it appeared to be. Police officers and crime scene technicians swarmed like worker bees from the hive, scouting out their surroundings meticulously, in hope of finding even the most minuscule of clues.
I’d spoken to several officers and carefully detailed my actions before finding the body. One officer eventually allowed me to retrieve Nicoh, who had awoken from his doggie slumber and—not one to be left out—had gone into full howl mode. Not pretty given the hour.
Unfortunately, it also hadn’t done much to detract the small crowd of onlookers congregating at the alley’s entrance. Now that I was safely in his sights, his piercing howls subsided, though there were still the occasional whoo-whoos as techs and officers passed. If anybody was going to get the last word, it would be Nicoh.
While we waited, I offered the crime scene techs shoe prints, fingerprints and paw prints for exclusionary purposes, along with a couple other items I thought might be useful, including a list of neighbors.
At first they indulged me, but after a short while, most resorted to a tight smile, a nod of the head or a pat on the back before politely asking me to return to my backyard to wait for Detective Ramirez, the lead investigator on the case, to arrive.
With nothing left to do, I resorted to flicking paint chips off the weathered bench where I sat. Nicoh grumbled in disgust—hopefully at the situation and not my choice of tasks—before sighing and placing his large head on his paws.
We carried on like this for a bit until a dark figure strode purposefully through the back gate. I had to keep from gasping audibly as I took in the tall, imposing stranger. Wavy black hair framed tanned skin, a strong, chiseled jaw and piercing green eyes. Though dressed in faded jeans, worn cowboy boots and a semi-pressed button-down shirt, his demeanor indicated he was the man in charge. His expression gave nothing away but I knew he was sizing us up, analyzing us in his cop-like way.
“Alaskan Malamute?” he asked.
“Very good, Detective Ramirez. Most people assume he’s a Siberian Husky or wolf-hybrid, but Nicoh’s 100 percent Malamute,” I replied. “All ninety-eight pounds of him.”
Nicoh sat up straighter and whoo-whoo’d with delight because of course, any conversation he was the subject of had to be a good one, right? Some protector, I mused.
“You know who I am.” It was more of a statement than a question, though Ramirez arched an eyebrow in mock surprise.
“Well, I’ve been interviewed by most everyone here, excluding the media, of course,” I subconsciously snarled out the word “media,” which ignited a flicker of amusement in Ramirez’s eyes. “Anyway, several of the officers mentioned you were the lead detective, noted I would need to speak with you and told me that my animal and I would need to sit quietly and wait until you arrived on the scene,” I paraphrased the actual conversations, but was sure Ramirez caught the sarcasm. “So, now that you are here, how can I help you, Detective?”
Ramirez hadn’t been sure what to make of Jabawski’s last comment, but as he entered the gate leading into Arianna Jackson’s backyard, two things struck him.
First was the large canine. Surrounded by a dark mask, its eyes reflected off the lights, giving them an eerie, copper cast. It bore a strong, muscular body with a bushy, curly tail, draped carelessly along its back as it rose to acknowledge his arrival. Its pointed, megaphone-like ears jutted forward. If not mistaken, it was an Alaskan Malamute—not a breed he’d often seen in a city like Phoenix.
The second thing he noticed was the woman the dog pressed himself against protectively. She wore an oversized crimson Henley, black running pants and ASICS with fluorescent yellow shoelaces. Her long dark hair was pulled into a high ponytail on the back of her head. Angled bangs shaded her eyes, though Ramirez could tell they were bright blue, with a fleck of something he couldn’t quite make out, given the distance between them. Whatever it was, it was striking. She wore no makeup but had a healthy flush to her cheeks. While tall and slender, her composed manner indicated she could handle both herself and that big dog, if needed.
She wasn’t rude but seemed eager to proceed, so he dispensed with the small talk and got down to business. As he questioned her, he found her direct and to the point, with a great deal of confidence and control. Her eyes met his with each response, her voice never wavering as she detailed her steps. A cool customer for someone who had stumbled upon a body in her dumpster, he noted. It didn’t mean she was immune to it, just that she’d tucked it away until prepared to deal with it. He’d seen it before—she didn’t want to lose control in front of him. She was a tough one, for sure.
After they finished their discussion, he offered to call someone to come and stay with her or to take her elsewhere. As he’d expected, she politely thanked him for his offer but declined. He gave her his card, told her he’d be in touch and scratched Nicoh behind the ears as he turned to leave.
Violet, like a brewing storm, he decided—that was the color of the flecks in her eyes.
Detective Ramirez quickly put me at ease as he questioned me and for the first time in a long while, I found another person’s company strangely comforting. In fact, I didn’t relish the thought of him leaving, but holding him hostage with my feminine wiles wasn’t an option, considering the circumstances.
I kicked myself. Seriously? Thoughts like that were so unlike me, I must have been suffering from exhaustion. I sighed to myself and let Ramirez go before I made a complete idiot out of myself. Well, almost.
“One last question?” I asked.
Ramirez looked at me intently. “Shoot.”
“You got a first name, Detective?” Eck, I mentally winced at my obviousness.
Ramirez broke into a small smile. “Jonah. Good night, Ms. Jackson.”
“AJ,” I countered.
“Good night, AJ.” And with that, he strode out of the gate, just as easily as he’d come in.
Nicoh peered at me—a glint of mischief in his eyes—and for a moment, I thought he was going to follow. I know how you feel, buddy, I thought. I know how you feel.
The task had been completed. Not to his satisfaction, of course, but completed. One more detail lingered. After years of waiting, it would soon be finished.
For now, he needed to focus on the end goal—obtain the final piece of the puzzle and destroy anyone who got in his way.