Chapter One

 

THE STORM blew in with the commuters at sunset, a wet slap of weather that made the roads treacherous and made everyone forget how to drive. It wouldn’t stay long. Based on the forecasts, it would have blown on down the road to the bright lights of San Diego by tomorrow. Plenty would be left a bit wetter, not much wiser, and full of freshly dented cars.

Unfortunately for Janet Morrow, she had the bad luck to go missing tonight.

An idiot in a shiny bug-sized car cut across the lane in front of the Challenger as Cloister took the turn onto Hot Springs Road. Cloister hit the brakes and spat out a curse between his teeth. In the back, Bourneville whined her objection to the sudden maneuver as she slipped on the plastic-covered floor. The driver of the bug jabbed a finger up at Cloister through the window as he fishtailed precariously toward the off-ramp.

It had been a long shift. Cloister clenched his jaw and resisted the part of himself that had learned how to deal with conflict at his stepdad’s heels. It didn’t matter how many times you punched someone, they never actually learned, so he didn’t follow the bug car off the road. Besides, he had a job to do.

“He’s gonna kill himself anyhow, Bon,” he said as he leaned forward to squint over the windshield. The rain was heavy enough to make it difficult to see, a stream of water so dense it seemed as though someone had turned on a tap. The occasional flash of lightning lit the night like garish fireworks but didn’t help visibility at all. “Sometimes you got to be the better man, right?”

She barked at him.

“Fine,” Cloister said. “Better man and/or dog. Happy now.”

She barked again.

Cloister did make a note of the man’s license plate. He wasn’t that good a man.

The turnoff for Delacourt appeared suddenly out of the rain. The tarmac was already striped with rubber streaks, and the barrier was scraped red with paint from someone’s driver’s-side door. Tomorrow would be a good day for body shops in Plenty.

“Shit,” Cloister muttered.

He flashed the blues—a splash of color bounced off the wet road—and cut across the road as the truck behind him braked obediently. He felt the way the tires slid as he took the turn over wet road and spilled oil. A lighter car with a driver who hadn’t learned to drive on shit Montana country roads, and he might have ended up in the gully with the angular red—what it hadn’t left on the barrier—Prius.

A heavyset deputy, his identity obscured under a drenched slicker that drooped down to his nose, tried to wave Cloister on his way with a flashlight. He jogged up to the car when Cloister pulled to the side of the road instead.

“…is under control,” he said. From the voice and acne-scarred chin, Cloister identified him as Collins and dropped the window an inch, enough for the wind to blast in a cold spray of rain. “Just move….”

“I would if I could,” Cloister said. “What happened?”

The call on his radio said there was a missing girl and a car accident on Delacourt. Mel hadn’t had time to give him any more details. Rain always made for a busy shift.

“Oh, it’s you, Witte.” Collins pushed his hood back and roughly wiped his hand over his face. He flicked rain and snot off his fingers against the window. “Sorry. It’s the rain. Can’t see my hand in front of my face.”

“Yeah, I nearly missed the turn,” Cloister admitted. “Where’s Tancredi?”

Collins turned and pointed the flashlight down at the Prius. It picked out Tancredi like a pointer. She was hunched under her jacket as she taped plastic over the door of the car. The flicker of light against the paintwork caught her attention, and she turned around, squinted into the rain, and gestured urgently for Cloister to come down and join her.

“Want me to close the road?” Collins asked hopefully. It would get him in out of the rain.

Cloister thought about it, but after a second he shook his head.

“Not yet,” he said. “Just keep any cars that come this way moving.”

Once Collins got out of the way, Cloister pulled in tight on the shoulder with his tires nudged right up to the crumbled edges of the tarmac. He got out of the car and slammed the door. The rain hammered down on him as he ducked around the back to get Bourneville.

She gave him a reproachful look when he unclipped her and lifted her out into the rain. It soaked her heavy coat into sodden black elflocks and made her waterlogged ears droop at the tips. She sneezed and pressed against his leg as he set her down. It shouldn’t be possible to get any wetter, but Cloister swore he could feel her damp soak into his pants.

“She all right?” Collins asked suspiciously from what he thought was a safe distance. He was scared of dogs, particularly Bon, for some reason.

Cloister clipped Bon’s lead to her harness and affectionately scrubbed her damp head. He felt her ribs push against his leg as she heaved a put-upon sigh. “She doesn’t like to walk in the rain,” he said. “Once she knows it’s work, she’ll be okay.”

He could see where the Prius had gone off the road. Deep, muddy ruts sliced through the scrubby, sun-bleached grass and down the hill in two uneven lines until they terminated under the ragged rear tires. Cloister gave the tracks a wide berth as he started down the slope. The loose, slippery dirt was like quicksand under his feet. He had to scramble to stay ahead of it, and the length of the leash played out to give Bourneville the freedom to make her own way down.

“Watch out,” Tancredi warned him dryly as he skidded down into the bog at the bottom. “It’s treacherous.”

He was already wet, but the water that spilled over his boots and soaked into his socks was colder.

“Thanks.” He spat water off his lips and raked his wet hair back from his face. He could see the nose of the Prius was half-sunk in the rising puddle. The cracked headlights were filled with mud, and the front wheels were buried up to the axles. “What happened?”

Tancredi held out her hand. He grabbed it and helped her squelch up out of the puddle. She kicked her boots against a rock to dislodge the heavy clods of mud welded to them.

“It looks like she just went off the road,” Tancredi said. She blinked water off her lashes and reached into her pocket to pull out a bagged driver’s license. It took her a second to wipe the water off the plastic and check the ID again. “Janet Morrow from Ithaca, New York. Cute kid.”

She handed the wallet to Cloister.

The leather had obviously been in the water, but the laminated picture on the ID was still clear enough as Tancredi pointed her flashlight at it. Cute was an understatement. Photo Janet had a mass of loosely braided red hair, a smooth oval face, and big eyes that were, according to the New York DMV, gray. She was beautiful and nineteen years old—good for selfies, not so much for a girl lost in the dark in an unfamiliar town.

“Did someone call it in?” he asked.

“AAA,” Tancredi said. She took the wallet back and tucked it into her jacket. “She called them to come and get her, but when they asked her where to pick her up, she said at the gas station on down the road. She probably wanted a coffee before she had to speak to someone.”

Cloister raised his eyebrows.

Tancredi pinched her lips together in disapproval. “There’s an empty hip flask on the passenger’s seat, and she did drive off the road. But when the tow truck got to McGuire’s, she wasn’t waiting for them. After a while they drove back down the road to look for her, and they found the car, but no sign of Janet.”

“Her parents?”

Tancredi shrugged the extent of her knowledge on that. Thunder growled overhead in a long, drawn-out groan like an unhappy stomach. Tancredi grimaced, waited until it stopped, and then went on. “I figure she couldn’t get back up to the road here,” she said, “so she tried to find a shortcut. Only in the dark and with the rain, if she got turned around, she could end up going miles in the wrong direction.”

That was an exaggeration. Even if she walked in circles, she’d eventually find herself somewhere. The danger wasn’t that Janet would walk into the desert and her bones would disappear into the sand. It was that she’d break her ankle in a pothole and spend the night out in the cold.

Or she’d run into someone who’d take her out into the desert and leave her there.

Delacourt used to be a quiet enough area, but then new neighborhoods and roads rewrote the map. Cut off from the lifeblood of the town and bypassed by the incomers, the businesses closed and people moved. It was a dying neighborhood, and that attracted trouble.

Cloister glanced down at Bon, who was pressed against his leg, her ribs sharp on his calf as she snorted the occasional pointed sneeze. He nudged her with his knee.

“Bourneville,” he said. Her ears pricked, and she looked up at him, all keen nose and alertness. “Ready to do some work.”

That was the magic word. She scrambled up onto her paws and eagerly wagged her tail, her misery at the rain forgotten. The heavy whip of it slapped against Cloister’s legs as he reached down to grab her harness just in case she caught a scent and hared off without him. She leaned her weight against his arm, eager to go.

“Did Janet leave anything else in the car?” he asked Tancredi. “Jacket? Sunglasses? You know the drill.”

She nodded and splashed back into the puddle. The light of her flashlight bounced around in the dark as she slogged back to the Prius.

“Can she even track in this?” Tancredi asked over her shoulder as she wrestled open the dented back door. She stuck the flashlight into her mouth to free up her hands, her words half-garbled as she finished. “It’s godawful.”

Cloister shrugged. “It could have been better conditions.” He caught the jacket that Tancredi tossed to him. It was already wet, the cheap faux fur that covered it matted and sticky under his fingers. The cuffs were stiff with half-dried mud. “Bon’s tracked in worse, though.”

The scent would be strongest on the inside of the coat, at the neck and sleeves where sweat and skin had rubbed into the lining. Cloister bundled the coat up in his hands and crouched down so Bourneville could stick her nose into it. She huffed and snorted at it for a second and then sat down to look at him attentively. Her haunches were already bunched, the muscles tight under the thick coat as she waited.

Cloister kept his hand on her harness as he scrambled back to his feet. He tossed the coat to Tancredi.

“We’ll do our best,” he said. Then he let go of Bourneville’s harness and barked out the track command. “Such!”

Bourneville lurched to her feet and cast around in the mud and trodden-down mat of grass around Cloister’s feet. She circled him twice, wider each time, and whined in frustration when she didn’t find anything. Either Janet hadn’t tried to scale the muddy slope at all, or her scent had already washed away.

When she didn’t find anything after her final sweep, Bourneville stopped and looked expectantly at Cloister.

He snapped his fingers and gestured across the muddy pool that had half drowned the Prius.

Voraus,” he ordered briskly. “Go round.”

Bourneville whuffed eagerly and lunged into the pool of water. It was almost to her stomach as she forged through it and splashed up the other side, her leash drenched as it dragged behind her. Cloister followed her with considerably less ease as he slogged through the mud at the bottom.

While he waded across, Bourneville gave Tancredi’s feet a quick sniff. She barked once as she caught the heavy whiff of the coat Tancredi held bundled up in her arms, her tail up in a tentative wag.

“Bourneville, no,” Cloister said sharply. He cupped his hand in the signal that should send her around the car. “Go round.”

The denial made Bourneville sigh. She shook her head hard enough to make her ears flap and dropped her nose to the ground again as she padded around the car. Tancredi shifted and ducked her head down to wipe her face on her shoulder.

“If she doesn’t find anything,” she said, “do you think Special Agent Merlo would approve the use of some of the Feds’ tech? The drones he used on the raid in the foothills last month, they have infrared. He showed me how they worked.”

She sounded impressed. Cloister wasn’t sure if it was with the tech or with “Special Agent Merlo.” His conscience nudged him that he couldn’t really blame her if it was the second. Cloister had been more than happy to make a fool of himself over Javi the last few months, up until he decided to see what would happen if he screwed everything up instead. He couldn’t even remember what the fight was about. That was a lie. It was about Javi’s lunch with that hot PI and the beer he hadn’t wanted to have with Cloister. But they hadn’t spoken since.

It had been a week—not even a week yet—but Cloister knew the terms of his relationship with Javi. He knew he’d fucked things up and that he did it at least partially on purpose. That’s what he usually did.

They hadn’t been dating, exactly, and they hadn’t even been not-dating that long. Cloister still felt the pinch of pain, like a charley horse in his emotions, when he thought about it being over.

Cloister clenched his teeth against the ache and impatiently shoved it to the back of his head. It wasn’t the time. He had a job to do, a dog to run, and a lost girl to find. If he wanted to, he could pick at his scabs later.

“Infrared wouldn’t be any good in this,” he said as he gestured toward the heavy, unsettled sky. “I doubt the drones could even get up, anyhow. Maybe tomorrow. If we don’t find anything, you can ask him. It can’t hurt.”

She frowned unhappily and nodded as she folded the coat over her arm. “Hope we won’t need to.”

Before Cloister could say anything, Bourneville barked once—a low, guttural noise strangled with enthusiasm. He gave Tancredi a quick reassuring smile.

“Hope so.”

He reeled the long wet strip of the leash in as he jogged over to where Bourneville stood over a pock in the dirt. It could have been nothing, or it might have been a rain-blurred footprint.

“Good girl,” Cloister praised as he slapped her shoulder. “Good dog, Bourneville. Now such.

She gave herself a quick shake to shed a coat full of water and loped forward, her nose down to the invisible trail that scooped and meandered across the sodden stretch of the median and onto the uneven pavements of neglected streets.