The body was lying on its left side, one arm draped across it with a lifeless hand, palm facing down, hanging limp over the railroad tracks. An empty, used needle lay on the ground, seeming to have fallen from the hand. One leg was bent at an odd angle, obviously broken. One foot wore a sandal, the other was bare. Hair hung over the face.
No apparent scuff marks in the dirt, which meant no struggle. No drag marks. Tire tracks large enough to fit a large size auto looked like they squealed to a stop near the side of the tracks. A cell phone lay alone fifty yards from the body as if flung out of the jeans’ pocket. No other personal belongings were strewn about. There was a lot of blood, but no other signs that an attack happened on the railroad tracks.
It was what greeted Thousand Oaks police detective Brandon Wolters when he arrived at the scene. Another dead body. He’d seen too many in his career. He headed toward an officer standing sentry near the body.
Towering over the other man, Wolters asked, “What do we have?”
“Female, approximately mid-thirties. Bullet hole in the forehead, right between the eyes. Needle on the ground next to her, so probably a junkie. Run-of-the-mill.”
“What’s your name?”
“Officer David Ross,” the man responded.
Ross looked down at his feet, then darted his eyes side to side like he was nervous. Wolters could see he intimidated the man. It could be because Wolters stood almost six inches taller or perhaps it was the sneer he had on his face when he put Ross in his place.
“Ross, no crime is run-of-the-mill. No victim is the same as the one before it. I ever hear you say ‘probably a junkie’ or ‘run-of-the-mill’ again, you’ll be pushing papers down in archives the rest of your career. I won’t ask if I make myself clear, because I know I do. Now, start canvassing the area.”
Wolters turned his back on the officer, ordered those remaining to help in the canvas and walked toward the victim. After pulling on a pair of latex, he leaned down and gently moved the hair away from the woman’s face. He then carefully checked her pockets for identification. Nothing. He would have to have her fingerprints run with the hope of finding out who she was.
“Excuse me, sir,” a voice behind him said.
He turned to find Officer John Reynolds.
“What is it?” he asked standing up.
“The guy renting this warehouse is asking to speak to whoever is in charge.”
“Tell him I’ll be right with him.”
Reynolds peered around Wolters at the victim.
“Hey, I just saw her. She was at the precinct a few days ago. I took her statement. Said someone was trying to kill her. Guess she was right.”
“You know her?”
“Yes, it’s a woman by the name of Brenda Haxton. Said her ex-husband was an FBI guy. I asked her why she just didn’t go to him for help. She told me it was because they were divorced and she didn’t want him to know anything about it.”
“What? This is Nick Haxton’s wife?”
Nick Haxton was a local FBI agent who Wolters had worked varying cases with over the years.
“Ex-wife, sir. She kept making that clear to me.”
“Oh, Christ,” he muttered. “She said someone was trying to kill her? Did she know who?”
“Refused to say a name, wanted police protection.”
“You’re positive about this?”
“What did you tell her?”
“Said we couldn’t just assign an officer to watch her without proof. Suggested she tell her ex-husband. Asked her again for the name of who she thought was after her, sayin’ I could go talk to the person. She refused. Seemed really scared.”
“And she wouldn’t give you a name?”
“Nope. Then she up and left. Said to forget it, forget she was even there.”
“I want to see your report when we get back to the office.”
“Thank you for the information.”
Wolters sighed and took his cell phone from his pocket. The first call he made was to his own boss Sergeant Roger Palazzio. After filling him in, Wolters offered to call Steven Lazlo himself. Lazlo was the FBI’s
field office’s Assistant
Director in Charge. Palazzio agreed to let Wolters make the call. Thousand Oaks
After Wolters told him who the victim was reported to be, Lazlo said, “Okay, I’ll handle it from here. I’ll send Haxton there to do the identification and I’m sure his partner Ivanovich will accompany him.”
Pavel Ivanovich had been a senior FBI agent for quite some time. He began his career in the
San Diego, California
office, but when he found out Carlo Mancini, his most hated enemy’s base of
operations was in , he put in for a
transfer and got it. He’d been there since, successfully solving cases under
Lazlo’s leadership. His record however, was not spotless. While on the Mancini
case, he acted out his own personal agenda and was almost fired. He was lucky
to have kept his job. That case made him realize that revenge was never best
acted upon. Thousand Oaks,
“I’ll watch for them,” Wolters replied.
Pavel and Nick had just finished a case and they were sitting with Forensco when Lazlo came in and asked to see Pavel privately. He went into Lazlo’s office and upon entering, Pavel was told to shut the door. He asked him what was going on.
“I just got a call. One that even I don’t know how to tell Nick,” Lazlo said, looking worried.
“It’s Brenda. They found her body on the south end of town, near the railroad station.” He put his hand on his shoulder and said, “They found needle tracks on her arm.”
“Shit,” Pavel quietly uttered. “Do you they know what happened? Was it an overdose?”
“Not sure. There was a gun shot to the forehead, right between the eyes. Needle lying in the vicinity. My guess is a deal gone bad.”
Pavel had no idea how he was going to tell Nick. He sat down heavily in a chair and put his head between his hands.
“I need you to investigate this, Pavel. Use Forensco. Nick’s too close and you know it.”
“I know,” he responded, bringing his head back up. “Do you mind if I tell Nick?”
“I thought you’d want to.”
As Pavel was leaving the office, Lazlo stopped him.
“For what it’s worth, Pavel, I’m sorry for Nick. I know the history they have.”
He walked back to his office, his stomach doing cartwheels. He didn’t know how to tell Nick and had no idea how he was going to take the news. He had a feeling this investigation wasn’t going to go well. Not well at all.
It wasn’t long before Pavel and Nick showed up to the crime scene. Wolters heard the scrunch of gravel under tires and he looked up.
After unfolding himself from the car, Pavel stood and shook Wolters’ hand. They were the same height, but Pavel was more muscular and his face more rugged and stern looking. Wolters knew the look. It was the unyielding mask he himself wore at most crime scenes.
“Good to see you, Wolters.”
Not too far in the distant past, Pavel would have been the last person Wolters would want at a crime scene. They had a history of professional and personal unrest. While Pavel was working undercover trying to bring down the Mancini family, his duplicity and hand in—although remote—Wolters’ wife Monica’s kidnapping was what made Wolters almost hate him. It took them both some time, but they managed to work things out.
Nick jumped out of Pavel’s car and asked, “Where is she?”
“I’m sorry, Nick,” Wolters said.
“Thanks,” he replied.
Nick spotted where all the action seemed to be occurring on the railroad tracks. He started walking in the direction. Despite the fact that Nick was a few inches shorter and less burly, Pavel didn’t stop him, even though he physically could, when Nick pushed past him and walked over to her corpse.
“Thanks for calling,” Pavel sighed. “Let’s see what we have.”
This was one body Pavel didn’t want to . . . almost couldn’t . . . go near. But he had to. With hesitance, he approached the scene and stood next to Nick, who was standing still looking down at Brenda, not saying anything.
“Are you okay?” he asked Nick.
“No, I’m not. Not at all.”
Pavel donned gloves and knelt down. He shook his head, not wanting to believe he was looking at her, staring at death. From the looks of things, Nick wasn’t handling it well. He had yet to lean down or get too close to Brenda’s body. Pavel was becoming concerned.
Pavel saw Wolters walking toward them. He stood up and took Wolters to the side.
“Wolters, give me a few minutes. Can you make sure no one comes near here until I’ve spoken with Nick? He might be in shock.”
“Sure. The M.E.’s on his way though. Don’t take too long.”
Even thought Pavel was his senior, Nick had been his partner and good friend since Pavel transferred to the area. He was there when Pavel almost lost his job and helped him through that difficult patch. In return, Pavel had also been there when Nick divorced his wife. Together, they had taken down mob families and various other criminals. Professionally, they worked well together and became close friends in the process.
“What happened?” Nick cried out.
Pavel already filled Nick in with as much as he knew, so Pavel understood the question to be rhetorical.
Nick finally squatted down next to Brenda and yelled, “Oh, god.”
Even though Nick knew, Pavel figured it must have been almost unbelievable until he saw her lying there.
Pavel went to him and put his hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Nick.”
“What happened? It can’t be.”
“I’m sorry,” Pavel reiterated.
Brenda became addicted to pain medications after an accident. Nick tried to help her, but it got tough over the years because she was unable and unwilling to go through continued rehabilitation. The last time he saw her, Nick noticed obvious changes. He knew she was clean, but definitely in trouble.
“Are you okay?”
No response. Even through his grief and shock, Nick knew procedure and he did as everyone else did before touching the body. With gloved hands, he took his ex-wife’s lifeless wrist in his and ran his hands over her skin.
He stood up, looked at Pavel and asked, “Why?”
“We don’t know who or why yet.”
“She wasn’t doing drugs, Pavel,” he stated even after seeing the needle on the ground.
“We will talk about that later. Come on, let’s go.”
“It’s not drugs,” he repeated as if in a stupor. “She was shot in the forehead. That needle could be anyone’s. A transient’s, maybe.”
“We don’t know anything yet,” Pavel reiterated.
“I do. I know, Pavel. I just met with her not long ago. She was clean. She was getting her act together,” Nick knelt down next to Brenda again.
Pavel could hear a gurney bumping over the gravel toward them and Pavel put his hand up and mouthed, “Wait.”
Pavel didn’t have the heart to point out there were track marks on her arm. At least not now.
“Let’s wait until we hear the M.E.’s findings. Perhaps she didn’t have any drugs in her system. You could be right and that needle belongs to someone else,” Pavel tried to reassure him.
Nick stood back up and asked, “Where’s Wolters?”
“Up by the train station, perhaps. Let’s go find out.”
Nick looked like his grief was unbearable. His face was set with a scowl and his eyes moist from tears that threatened to spill. Nick looked at the body then off toward the station, composed himself, and walked away from the tracks. Pavel followed him and they both went to talk to Wolters.
The detective was writing in his notepad and looked up as they approached.
“Haxton, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Thanks. What do you know?”
“I shouldn’t even be sharing this with you and I’ll only give you general information. Ms. Haxton’s body . . . ”
“Brenda’s body was found by a man by the name of Evan Rogers. I just interviewed him. Seems he was here waiting for a shipment of dolls to come in. Good thing it hasn’t yet. Train would have rolled . . . ” Wolters quickly stopped speaking.
“Dolls?” Pavel asked, trying to change the subject about what the train could have done.
“Yeah, but that’s beside the point. He found Brenda and called it in. The minute I knew her identity, I called Lazlo.”
“What else?” Nick asked.
“Not to be a dick here, but I can’t share anything more with you.”
“She was my ex-wife, Wolters. I am her next of kin. If it were Monica . . . ”
The reference to Wolters’ wife didn’t get him anywhere.
“I understand you were married to her. But that fact alone removes you from this case. And it’s not an FBI matter.”
“Didn’t you investigate your wife’s kidnapping a while back? Come on, Wolters. You of all people should understand.”
During the Mancini case, Monica was taken and Wolters did everything he could to find her. He knew what it was like, but he also remembered he was too close, just as Nick was now.
“He’s right, Nick. Step back. Let me handle this,” Pavel quietly inserted.
“Neither of you will handle this,” Wolters responded. “There is no reason for the FBI to be involved,” when Pavel began to speak, Wolters stopped him. “Palazzio just called. He spoke with Lazlo, who realized that this is not an FBI matter and no agent will be investigating this. There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“I understand that. As a favor, Wolters,” Pavel suggested. “let me help.”
“Look, as you know, we have a gun shot wound to the head. It could also be drug related . . . ”
“It’s not,” Nick stated with a firmness that surprised Pavel.
“Nick, you know . . . you saw the needle near Brenda’s body. However, until we hear what the medical examiner has to say,” Wolters continued, “I won’t assume anything and don’t need the help.”
“We can plainly see she was shot,” Nick said. “The medical examiner will only repeat those findings.”
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s too early to say it was the shot that killed her or the drugs, if that’s even the case. Does she have any family?”
“No. I am all she had, at least while we were married.”
Nick seemed so sad, his facial expressions crestfallen, and it killed Pavel to look at him.
“Then I’m sure any belongings we find will be released to you, but not until after the investigation. You know how that works.”
“Yeah, I do,” Nick grumbled.
“Will you keep me up to speed?” Pavel asked.
“I will, as a favor.” Wolters put his hand on Nick’s shoulder and told him, “I am sorry.”
Nick nodded and walked off.
Pavel began surveying the area. He was checking out access and exit points, the businesses that were nearby, the lighting, or lack of, and if there were any security cameras.
Wolters knew that look, one he often had himself, and said, “Again, I have this covered, Ivanovich.”
“I heard you the first time.”
Pavel left and joined Nick back near their car.
“Go on home, Nick. Take my car and I’ll get a ride.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure Wolters wouldn’t mind giving me a lift.”
“Since my car is at the office, I’ll leave your car there and put the keys inside your desk.”
“All right. I will keep you in the loop as much as I am able.”
“I’ll see you in the office in the morning.”
Nick got in the car and rolled the window down.
Pavel leaned in and told him, “Don’t start looking into things on your own, Nick. Even Wolters said they don’t know the cause of death yet.”
“I do. Murder. Plain and simple. Someone shot her in the head. I want to know why.”
“I know you are upset, but do not go and do something you may regret later.”
“I can tell you one thing,” he swept his hand toward the train station, “I doubt Brenda was here for a doll shipment.”
Pavel didn’t disagree and his intuition told him Nick was right, it wasn’t a simple matter of a drug deal gone bad and being shot because of it. There was more, Pavel just knew it.
Teresa Mancini just got home after interviewing a potential employee. She was the very spoiled daughter of Carlo Mancini, a mafia boss Pavel and Nick took down a while ago and someone whom Pavel professed to love. A lot of people didn’t like Teresa and even went out of their way to avoid her. She didn’t have friends, only acquaintances. She could be pushy, arrogant and thought the world revolved around her. She had a very fit, thin body, was gorgeous and knew it. She often tried to use her feminine wiles to get her way, and not just with Pavel. But Pavel often told her that he saw a side of her she rarely showed, loving and caring. No matter the cost to her, she was always there for Pavel. Despite the fact she grew up under the thumb of a very influential father, she knew right from wrong and when it came time to exercise her beliefs, she testified against her own father.
The interview was short and ended up being a waste of her time. The woman was too demanding, wanting to be paid way more than Teresa thought the position was worth. What made it worse was she had to take a taxi to and from the store.
Madeline’s Treats was a store she inherited at her father’s passing. It definitely wasn’t a job she would have chosen for herself. She had one employee—Dillon Crowley—and she wanted to hire at least one other to free her so she could do other things.
That night when Pavel got home, Teresa voiced her complaint about not having a car or a cell phone.
“It’s ridiculous, Pavel. I can’t keep taking taxis.”
“I agree. We’ll go look for a car for you as soon as I can.”
“I’ll go tomorrow. And I intend on getting something nice, so expect it.”
Pavel smiled. It was the Teresa he had come to know and yes, love.
“Okay. See what you can find tomorrow and if it’s reasonable, we can talk about taking out a loan for you.”
“And a cell phone. I’ll drive my new car to a phone company and get one.”
“Teresa, I haven’t authorized a car yet. We will talk more about this tomorrow. I am very tired and would like to get some sleep.”