Tide of Lies
April 15th 2012
A devastating secret. A shocking betrayal. A deadly obsession.
Haunted by three unsolved murders, Detective Holden Whitlow is stunned when his cold case takes a heated turn. Julia Cohen, his ex-lover, is back in town, and in the face of a brutal attack she's ready to run. No matter how tightly she holds her secrets, for Holden, turning away from the woman he's spent a decade trying to forget isn't any more an option than walking away from his job . . .even when it threatens to cost Julia her life.
Julia is still reeling from a past she can't bear to face. When she becomes the target of a killer, fate throws her back into Holden's arms, but she's yet to recover from a truth that has stripped her of everything—and everyone—she loves. Will she tell him the secret that will destroy him, or will her lie destroy them both?
Holden Whitlow could have done without that grim utterance from his sergeant re-entering his life. He exhaled, wishing the hot, summer sun would dissolve some of the unease weighing him down. But the scorching rays cutting through the windshield only left him hot and sticky, prompting his sunglasses to slide down his nose and his shirt to plaster against his back. The discomfort, however, didn't best the miserable prospect of walking onto a crime scene and confronting the fourth murder victim of his short career.
Two years ago, a stalker turned murderer and took three local women as victims. The cases remained unsolved. Holden had been sopping wet behind the ears at the time, but his inexperience landed him a top-notch partner in Greg Martin, the lead detective who since retired. Although the whole Barrier Shoals PD had, at some point, worked the stalker case—Martin even checking in from his living room—guilt led Holden to carry the weight of the unsolved murders solo. It dug deep under his skin, and whether or not his cold case had just been set ablaze, the heat was on.
He wasn't a math guy, but oh-for-four rang in his ears like nails on a chalkboard.
This murderer wouldn't get away.
Spying the convenience store marking the crime scene, Holden steered his Crown Vic into the lot and parked on the far edge, intending to close the last sixty feet on foot. There was no reason to hurry or risk driving over evidence. The girl was dead.
Holden's partner had beat him there, a faux pas the older detective would never let Holden live down. Detective John "Bear" Barrett surveyed the surroundings, fingers splayed on his hips, one hand in the vicinity of his badge and the other in close quarters with a Glock.
"You're late," he said, not bothering to look up as Holden neared.
Holden snorted. "I thought you were on vacation."
"Was. I came back for the show."
"I'm sure our vic appreciates your dedication to the cause," Holden said, not feeling the edge of his own humor. He cast a cursory glance around the defunct Quik-Stop. Dented gas pumps stretched in a forlorn line, islands in a sea of broken glass. Thin lines of grass snaked over the lot, marking cracks in the pavement. Holden smelled the stench of abandonment, felt the pulse of death. "Where's the body?"
Holden consulted his phone for the time. A quarter hour had passed since the call. A couple of techs had their noses to the pavement, plucking at the scattered, nearly microscopic debris of the abandoned lot with tweezers, but the coroner, David Frankel, was nowhere in sight. Short of disavowing protocol and shoving the body in his trunk, there was no way he could clear a scene in fifteen minutes. "The morgue? Already?"
Bear knelt, balancing on the balls of his feet, and cocked his head, studying the ground. Shifting his sunglasses away from his eyes, he raised an arm and motioned over a young woman from forensics.
"Make sure you catch this trail," he said, pointing first to his feet, then in a line toward the building. Without waiting for her response, he righted himself and returned the shades to his nose. "I said hospital, Whitlow. Not morgue. Considering the victim is still breathing—but barely—I don't think she'd take kindly to a tour of the basement."
Bear paced the twenty feet to the painted brick corner of the store. A metal door on the side hung slightly ajar, the word "JON" displayed with crooked, stuck-on letters. He nudged open the door wider with his foot. Seconds later, his head jerked to the side as if the stench had reached out and slapped him.
Laughing, Holden edged closer. "I could have told you not to breathe, Detective."
He pulled a penlight from his pocket and directed it inside the stall, pressing his mouth in a thin line to suppress his gag reflex. Questionable patches in various shades of brown smeared the floors, and the toilet held what appeared to be a solid mass of waste he didn't care to investigate. His quick sweep of the room came to an abrupt end at the sink, where dark crimson marred the already stained porcelain.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Holden asked, glancing to Bear, who had joined him in the doorway.
"Looks like blood to me." Bear shook his head. "I'd sure hate to be the guy sopping up DNA out of that shit hole."
Holden scratched the back of his neck, surveying the handful of officers and forensic techs scattered over the scene. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to go in there, criminal or otherwise."
That particular restroom had never been golden. When he was at the tender, scheming age of fourteen, he and his buddy, Bridger Jansen, used to buy cigarettes from an elderly—and half blind—cashier and hide in the bathroom to smoke. Fully functioning, it hadn't smelled much better than it did now.
Bear covered his nose and mouth with his forearm.
"Well, someone wanted in, and recently," he said, his voice muffled. "See a rookie due for a hazing?"
With a rueful glance through the open doorway, Holden shook his head. "That's why I don't work forensics."
"Yeah," Bear said, walking away from the building. "Someone else does the grunt work, and we get the glory. Cushy job, huh?"
Glory. Not much of that in three unsolved murders. Holden joined Bear by the curb where he stood—his foot propped on the concrete—and shook off a squirrely sense of déjà vu. No. This one was different. "She's alive, you say?"
"Catch up, Whitlow. Unconscious when they found her, but breathing. Who told you she was dead?"
Holden mentally wheeled back through the phone call from his sergeant. He hadn't specifically said the woman was dead, but the implication had been there. Another one.
"The victim, where was she?" Only a few rushed footprints disturbed the grime and . . . stuff on the bathroom floor. The victim couldn't have been there in a state of failing consciousness, which begged three questions: Where had the blood come from? Whose blood was in the bathroom . . . and how did it get there?
Pointing to a cluster of uniforms, Bear said, "Victim was balled up over there on the pavement. Kid in the jeans called it in. Said he thought he saw her breathing but was afraid to get too close. Didn't want the breeze blowing his DNA on her or something."
Holden followed Bear's gesture, pegging the kid at the other end of it for about fifteen. He was tall and scrawny, with the height of a man but none of the bulk. Head down and sans his shoes, he toed the end of a skateboard, causing it to clack against the pavement. Long, blond bangs obscured his face. "Did he see anything?"
"A lump out of the corner of his eye. He was cruising down the sidewalk when he noticed her. He came over to investigate. When he realized the object was human, he freaked and dialed 9-1-1 from his cell phone. Or that's his story, anyway."
Holden's jaw clenched. He didn't like getting his information secondhand. Bear had a good eight years of police experience over him, though, and his work was meticulous. Whatever information he had would be good. "You don't believe him?"
"It's the scene of the crime, Whitlow. I don't believe anyone yet."
Holden set his jaw. "Do you have a reason—?"
Bear grinned, and then leaned closer. "Between you and me, he's about to piss himself. Did I mention the kid was bleeding? Nice little gash on his hand. I bet my badge that blood in the bathroom is his."
"Yeah," Holden grumbled. "Empty wager. You just like toying with me."
"I'm a high stakes man." Bear grinned and cocked his head toward the restroom. "What do you want to believe he stepped in something?"
That would certainly explain why the boy was standing there in his socks. Nothing to ruin an afternoon like having your shoes hijacked as evidence. Holden tried to imagine how that excuse would have flown with his own mother, fast deciding it wouldn't. He hoped the kid was as innocent as he looked. Holden turned to Bear. "Hey, how did you get here so fast? You're making me look bad."
"Eh. My wife dragged me to the gallery around the corner for some watercolor exhibit. I drew the line at an hour-long session on interpretation, so she cut me loose to grab some coffee. I was right across the street when the call came." He held up a paper cup in mock salute.
Holden hadn't even noticed Bear's car was absent. Some detective. "I don't guess you saw anything?"
"Nope, not a thing. Everything was quiet until the sirens started blaring. I got here about the time the ambulance did. Cramer was the first uniform on the scene, but not by much. I watched him pull in. It's pretty quiet around here—especially for a Saturday afternoon."
That it was, especially for tourist season. A quaint resort town alongside the Atlantic Ocean, Barrier Shoals usually hosted tourists from May through September, and this morning shouldn't have been an exception. But other than a small crowd drawn by the police presence, the lonely corner now felt . . . dead.
Holden winced at the thought.
Bear crossed his arms and fixed his sunglass-covered stare on Holden. "You've still got your head in your ass over those murders a few years back."
"No . . . yeah." Holden blew a sharp breath and planted his hands on his head. "Hell, Barrett, I don't know. It's hard sitting on a case you never solved. The guilt doesn’t go away just because you close the file."
"Wouldn't know about that. My closure rate is pristine."
Holden rolled his eyes, dropping his hands to his hips. "If you're so smart, work the cold case. You find the guy."
"In due time, partner. We've got a hot one, so how about we stick to the living victims for now?" Bear's cell phone chirped. He consulted the screen, and then held up a finger signaling he needed a minute. Lifting the device to his ear, he said, "Barrett."
Turning to allow Bear a modicum of privacy, Holden rolled his shoulders and cocked his head, popping his neck. He was off his game, unable to shake the discord that arrived on the heels of the initial call. Another one. Clearly, Holden wasn't the only one haunted by the past. His sergeant's tone had carried the same wariness now lumped in Holden's chest. The question was, why?
What was it about this call that had set off eerie alarm bells in both their minds? The vic wasn't dead. Nothing about this scene seemed remotely connected to the others—and yet . . . Barrier Shoals was a small town. Most of the crime he handled was the minor break-ins and purse snatchings that seemed to plague the tourist season. A murder. An assault. These were rare. Rare enough to raise the sergeant's hackles. And after all the dead ends he'd been finding lately, Holden was on edge, as well.
Behind him, Bear cleared his throat. "You want to go talk to the vic? I can handle things here."
Holden turned, looking at Bear in surprise. "Me? It's not like you to give up a bedside encounter with a woman."
Bear dropped his cell phone in his pocket and shrugged, his self-proclaimed lady-killing grin in a lazy sprawl across his face. "You have a point there, but I'm not into sloppy seconds."
The dig worked. Holden froze. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You got me, Whitlow, but our vic is awake. Seems the lovely Julia Cohen is asking for you by name."
Julia Cohen. The name wasn't familiar, but the nagging feeling Holden should know it tailed him all the way to the hospital. The unease kept him company in the otherwise empty elevator where he now stood, thumbs hooked in his pockets with his fingers tapping his thighs. The numbers above the doors lit in rapid succession before landing on six with a quiet ping.
Julia . . . Julia . . . .
The doors slid open to reveal a bustling nurses' station. Ahead, a uniformed officer leaned against the wall, saving Holden the trouble of asking directions. He flashed his badge to the desk nurse and made his way down the hall, sidestepping an elderly woman in a wheelchair and food cart with a stack of covered dishes. The smell of the waiting dinners made his stomach rumble, reminding him he'd skipped lunch.
His stride faltered as he neared the room. He should have stopped for an update on Ms. Cohen's condition. Now, thanks to his bull-nosed curiosity, he had no idea what to expect. With a nod to the officer, Holden knocked lightly on the door, and then waited a few seconds before letting himself in.
Afternoon sunlight bathed the room in an earthy glow, casting a deep shadow over her face and masking her identity from him. His only clue was the shape of the blankets draped over her, which suggested her frame was slight, her height petite. Lacking anything else to go on, Holden took her name for another spin. Julia . . . .
"You cut your hair," she said.
Startled, Holden drew his hand to his head, his palm pressing the soft spikes aside.
Quiet laughter met his ears. "You didn't know?"
Holden squirmed inside, feeling every bit the schmuck for not recognizing her, though she clearly felt she knew him. But her voice . . . it might have been familiar if not for the dry, raspy undertones—a beating could do that to a person, though. Damn. His victim knew him—or thought she did—and he hadn't a clue who she was. After the trio of murders hit Barrier Shoals, he'd had plenty of cameras shoved in his face. Was she one of those so-called murder groupies? Either way, she had the advantage. If he could only see her . . . he struggled with the urge to turn on the overhead light, eliminating the shadows. Grasping, he tried to remember when he'd last made a change to his hair.
Seventeen. Right before his first semester of college, his mom pleaded with him to ditch the shaggy surfer cut—something to do with the world not taking him seriously with his hair in his face. She equated grooming with respectability, and Holden had fast learned the fine art of choosing his battles. Maybe that's why he felt for the kid standing in his socks at the crime scene—Holden had been there and done a little too much of that.
But choosing battles wasn't the only thing Holden had done that summer.
He'd been engaged . . . .
Recognition slammed into him.
"Jules." His voice broke. He tried to hide it by clearing his throat. This was a hellfire state of awkward. It wasn't every day a man ran into the woman who'd made a dizzying, mind-blowing play for his virginity . . . and won.
That part had been amazing. The rest, he had just tried to forget.
Finding his feet, he dragged a chair to her bedside and sank onto the hard vinyl. He fiddled with his fingers for a long moment, finally looking up from the floor tile to find her eyes. Closer now, he knew without a doubt it was her. "I never knew your last name."
Or, it seemed, her first.
Jules—Julia—held his gaze.
"I don't guess I gave you much of a chance to learn it," she said, her voice soft and . . . wistful?
He swallowed, choking back an unexpected tide of emotion. "No, you didn't."
Her luminous green eyes poured over him. The darkness of the room couldn't entirely overshadow their brilliance, nor did it hide the beginnings of some nasty bruises, but that one look did a fine job of putting to rest any ideas he ever had about being over her.
His heart squeezed in his chest. Do your job. "What happened?"
She leaned forward, and Holden automatically reached to help adjust the pillows behind her back. His fingers grazed hers over the corner of the pillowcase. The passing touch sent his stomach on a wild plummet, any chance of forgetting their past lost to the force of gravity tugging on him like a black hole.
"I was on my way to see you," she said, drawing him from his thoughts.
"Me?" His voice came out as a manly squeak. Great. "May I?"
He reached for the light, adjusting it to the lowest setting when she nodded. God help him, he had to see her again.
"Yes, you. I heard you were lead detective on that stalker case that was just in the news." Julia toyed with the bedspread, rolling it between her thumb and forefinger. "I wanted to get in touch with you. For years, actually. But after the way I left, I didn't know what to say."
Holden tensed, but remained quiet. By all appearances, the recent case had ended in suicide and would be off his desk—if not his mind—as soon as the routine investigation was closed.
"It was complicated," she said. "I couldn't . . . ."
Her eyes grew shiny, but the tears didn't come.
"It's okay, Jules," he said, ignoring the part of him screaming to know why she had ducked out without a word so many years ago. The blow he took to his ego was to be expected—any guy who gave up his virginity only to have the girl bolt would be inclined to feel like a chump—but the stabbing ache in his heart back then had been a surprise. "Can we talk about what happened today?"
She nodded, the tears holding their ground, unshed. "Like I said, I was on my way to see you. Not long ago, I started getting . . . notes. I didn't think much of them at first, but when I heard about the stalking a couple of days ago, I got worried."
Holden had been worried, too. Earlier that week, his old friend, Laney Kent, had been attacked and left for dead by her jealous co-worker. Although Holden's initial assessment drew parallels to the unsolved murders, Laney's case—unlike those in his past—had been resolved.
"We got the guy," he said, his voice low.
Julia tipped her head, her gaze piercing him. "I know. But it made me think twice about the notes I'd gotten."
The nagging feeling returned. "Tell me about them."
"They started out more in the style of a secret admirer. Compliments on my hair or my outfit. A line about how he smiled every time he thought of me. Flattery, you know?"
He nodded. "Any idea who they were from?"
"No. I just assumed it was someone trying to be cute. Four days of those—six notes total—then they changed, and it really started to creep me out. He was so specific he had to be watching me. He'd tell me he was displeased when he saw me smiling at the cashier when I got coffee that morning. Or I shouldn't have eaten those fries with lunch because I'd ruin my figure. Like he was looking over my shoulder, you know?"
Holden gave another slight nod. "Did he give any details about himself?"
"No . . . I just assumed it was a man. I wasn't sure, but I brought the notes. They're in my"—her eyes widened—"my purse! Holden, did anyone find it?"
"What does it look like?" he asked, pulling his phone from his pocket. He relayed the details by text to Bear. "My partner is on the case, and as he likes to tell it, his closure rate is pristine. I'm sure he won't let a handbag thwart him." Holden smiled, hoping he sounded reassuring. "Where do you live now?"
"Atwood. It's a couple hours away."
He knew a uniform with Atwood PD. Holden made a mental note to ask about any similar cases there. "I know it. Did you report any of this to them?"
"I didn't think there was anything to report. I mean, I started thinking of what happened here before and got freaked out, but I didn't think the cops would care about a couple of notes, especially considering there were no threats made. Nothing actually happened until today."
"So you came to see me?" Holden did his best to speak over the little lump of curiosity in his throat. He'd never wanted to completely forget the time he spent with Jules—the problem was he couldn't forget how it ended. And after years of safekeeping in a corner of himself he seldom acknowledged, having those old feelings ripped raw unsettled him. Seeing her bruised, however, was far worse. Protective instincts prowled the fence he'd erected around his heart, the resurfaced feelings looking for a hole through which to charge.
Holden could not—would not—go there again. But his determination made her eyes no less green, the bruises no less real.
Julia shifted in the bed, dragging his attention to the shape of her legs under the blanket. His mind jumped to memories of plunging between them. His initial strokes—tentative and awkward—had fired into a two-week long, unholy streak of sin from which he'd yet to recover.
Julia showed no outward signs of sharing his thoughts, but how could she? She only knew half the story, and she'd left him the hell out of hers. He didn't know what made her run, but it was just as well. If her secrets had anything on his, they were both better off in the dark.
She tucked an escaped lock of hair behind her ear and blew a shaky breath.
"It's like I said. I started to worry. I asked . . . well, I cleared my schedule for a couple of days. I wanted to talk to you. There are some things I need to say." Her voice wavered, but her eyes never left his.
Holden rocked back in the chair, unsure if they were stepping around the past or headed right for it. Either way, there was a big white elephant in the corner of the room, and the sun glinting off the damn thing nearly blinded him.
"We can talk later about . . . whatever you need to say to me. I need to know about the attack." He paused, finding her gaze. "If our past is too much of a distraction, I can have someone else interview you."
Her eyes flashed with indignation. "Holden Whitlow, if you think—"
"Wait." That spark of emotion from her sent his mind on a skid. Something didn't make sense. Bear reported the perp had beaten Julia within an inch of her life, but she seemed miles from it. Holden wouldn't peg her as cheerful, but this was far from a deathbed conversation. She'd joked with him . . . she'd smiled. He sat up straight and leaned toward her. "How badly were you beaten?"
She blinked, all traces of anger faded from her expression. "What? How do I even answer that?"
Searching for a new approach to his question he asked, "Were you unconscious?"
"No," she said, a small grin lighting her face. "I pretended I was. Thought he might quit if he thought I was out."
"And the bruises?"
"I haven't exactly seen them yet, but he did hit me in the face—twice. By the second punch, I realized he meant business, so I stopped fighting and fell. He kicked me a few times, but I don't think he made a solid connection. I just balled up and went limp."
"That move probably saved your life," he said, studying the early bruising circling each of her eyes. A raw scrape on her cheek didn't hide the darkening there.
She smiled. Bittersweet and sad, it didn't reach her eyes. "I have a lot to live for, Holden."
He fiddled with his hands, biting back the urge to ask her to elaborate. Who or what had put that wistful tone in her voice? "Can you tell me what happened during the attack? How did he approach you?"
"I didn't see much. I got off the bus at the corner and headed west toward my hotel, the Beacon Inn. Next thing I knew, I'd been grabbed and dragged away from the sidewalk, behind the store."
Holden nodded. The gas station sat on a corner lot, and west took her right beside the abandoned convenience store, giving her attacker easy cover. "When did he hit you?"
"I didn't make it easy for him at first. I fought him until we turned the corner of the building away from the street, when he just let go. I probably should have run, but I was so surprised I turned to look at him. Ski mask," she said, answering the question he'd yet to ask. "That was all I saw before he hit me. The second one came immediately thereafter."
"So you were near the building when you went down?"
"Right beside it."
"You were found across the parking lot," he said. "Do you remember getting yourself over there?"
"Yes, a little while after the attack."
Her voice was so soft it pained him. He couldn't imagine how scared and alone she must have felt lying there. "Did you go in the bathroom at any point?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I've always avoided gas station bathrooms. Today was no exception."
"When did you begin to move?"
"He stopped kicking me. I counted to a hundred . . . about five times." She laughed, sadly, and the self-depreciation tore through him. "I don't know how long it was, but when I figured he was gone, I started crawling across the lot. My vision was blurry and everything hurt. I didn't want to chance running into him again but don't know what choice I had. I hoped someone—someone else—would see me."
"Someone did." The kid with the skateboard. "What can you tell me about the man who attacked you? His build? Height? Did you see his eyes?"
"Gray eyes. Cold and dark, like the person behind them was dead—soulless. He was taller than me, but then again, who isn't?" She laughed again. "Nothing extraordinary."
"Did he say anything?"
She shook her head. "Not a word."
"Were all of the notes delivered in Atwood?" When she nodded, he asked, "Do you have any reason—even if it's a gut feeling—to think this was related to the notes?"
Julia bit her bottom lip, and then winced as if it pained her.
"No," she said slowly. "I guess I don't. No real reason. Maybe if not for knowing the guy was still out there . . . but from what I've read about your unsolved cases, the pattern fits. It just seems a bit much to chalk up to coincidence."
Holden couldn’t argue with that, but thus far, he knew of no real evidence connecting the cases. His next step would be to remedy that. He wasn't one to put much faith in coincidences.
Of course, he hadn't believed in ghosts, either.
Tide of Lies is a quick second chance at romance plot with lots of suspense and a serial killer mystery all rolled into one which will allow you to enjoy the escape for a couple of hours. The characters are very well developed for a short book of 100 pages or so and Ms. Ballance’s ability to paint scenes is the best. Holden and Julia have a lot of obstacles from the past to overcome so it keeps you on your toes wondering if they will be able to overcome those obstacles and solve the mystery of the serial killer before it’s too late. The mystery kept me guessing right up to the end. Will be looking for more from Ms. Ballance and highly recommend this one if you like a little romance with your suspense! Review copy supplied by the author for Sizzling PR.
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