By ALEXI VENICE
I’m so grateful for my readers, and am thrilled to see the high volume of downloads for my latest murder mystery (with a romantic twist): Stabscotch, The San Francisco Mystery Series, Book 3. Thank you all for your support! (If you’re wondering, “Why the cigarettes and Scotch?” it will all make sense once you’re into the book:)
If you’re curious whether you would like Stabscotch, here’s Chapter 1. Enjoy!
Stabscotch, The San Francisco Mystery Series, Book 3
Tommy slept soundly, bracketed against the bare back of Sadie Cintean, her ample butt tucked into his groin. She had accepted his invite for a night cap after dinner at Don Pistos in North Beach—their fourth date. They made love into the wee hours of the night, her boundless energy as refreshing as it was exhausting.
He was awakened by his cell phone ring. He broke from Sadie and rolled over to grab it from the night stand.
“Hey cuz, it’s Ryan,” Assistant Chief of Police Ryan Delmastro said.
“Shit,” Tommy mumbled. “You’re gonna ruin my Sunday, aren’t you?”
“Last time I checked, you were a homicide detective, and we have a homicide that needs detecting.”
“Outside my jurisdiction,” Tommy groaned.
“Marin County Sheriff’s Department is short on detectives. We owe ‘em one for helping us out on the gang bust last year.”
“When did it happen?” Tommy rubbed his eyes.
“Overnight. Found early this morning.”
“San Francisco resident. Jina Pak—of Korean descent.”
“They told me she has a neck wound. That’s all I know.”
“That’s for you to find out. Are you a fuckin’ journalist? What’s with the one-word questions?” Tommy heard Ryan slam his hand on a table. “You’re with a woman, aren’t you?”
“Smile if you got any last night.”
“I’ll be there in an hour.” Tommy broke the connection.
“What’s going on? You have to be somewhere in an hour?” Sadie asked, moving to rest her head on his chest.
“Yeah. Homicide on Muir Beach. Gotta go.”
“One more time around?” she asked, cupping his balls with her hand.
“As much as I’d like that, and I would, I’m afraid the dog needs a nap. He might be ready tonight. What are you doing for dinner?”
“Meeting you somewhere. Text me.”
“Count on it. Stay as long as you like. I have to shower and go.”
“I’ll shower with you,” she said, and did.
They left together and strolled down the hill from Tommy’s corner at Kearny and Vallejo to his barista at Caffé Trieste. He ordered a biscotti and cappuccino to go, and bought a mocha for his lover, who happened to be a criminal defense lawyer, but he didn’t hold that against her.
They walked to her car, which was parked on a hill a few blocks away. Never one to gush over fantastic sex, he simply said, “Sorry I gotta run.”
“Me, too. Text you later.” She raised herself on her tiptoes and placed a delicate kiss on the underside of his unshaven jaw.
“Whatever works for you.” He watched her start her car, use the wiper blades to remove the film of fog, then pull out of her tight spot.
He turned and walked toward his car—an unmarked police cruiser—which was on a side street a few blocks up the hill. He couldn’t use his garage because he leased it to pay his monthly mortgage. He was grateful for the rental income, allowing him to own a house in a market that was otherwise too expensive for his detective’s salary. He unlocked the battered cruiser, got in, and drove toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
When he exited Tamalpais Valley, a sign indicated that the segment of Highway 1 leading to Muir Beach was closed. It’s gonna be one of those days. The detour added thirty minutes to his drive as he zigzagged through the redwood forest on Muir Woods Road, the fresh scent of the giant trees tempering his sour mood. He drove past the Pelican Inn, reminiscent of an English Inn from the fifteenth century, and dropped down to the beach parking lot.
The lot was crammed with Marin County Sheriff cruisers. A patrol officer stood at the entrance, directing traffic, so Tommy flashed his badge and found an empty spot. A cluster of curious locals stood by with their dogs, their Sunday morning routine of walking the beach interrupted by the inconvenience of murder in their peaceful neighborhood.
He got out of his car, stretched, and walked to the footbridge that took him from the lot, over the marsh, to the base of the sand dunes. It had been several years since he had visited this popular location, and he was impressed with the improvements. At almost two hundred yards in length, the new bridge was solid and attractive. Beyond it, nestled between the grassy sand dunes, was a long path to the beach. With each step on the sand, his street shoes sinking deep, he felt the sense of doom attendant to a murder scene.
Emerging from the high dunes, he didn’t have any difficulty spotting the crime scene on the pristine beach before him. The local police had strung the tell-tale yellow tape around spindly posts in a thirty square-foot area, just below the massive hill that rose like a bookend at the north end of the beach.
The beach itself was as he remembered—a quarter-mile long, dark cliffs on the south side, residences neatly terraced into the hillside with stunning views of San Francisco in the distance. The sand was caramel-colored closest to the dunes, transitioning to small black and grey pebbles by the water, but not as fine as the black lava sand he’d experienced in Hawaii. His mind briefly flitted back to the beaches he and his Hawaiian girlfriend, Vhina, had had sex on, but there was no time for reminiscing about past lovers this morning.
Directing his attention to the north end of the beach where there was smoke wafting from a dying campfire, he let his gaze wander over the murder scene before officially ducking under the yellow tape to perform the grisly tasks of his profession.
The campfire site was nestled at the foot of a steep hillside, covered with dense grass and shrubbery. Massive benches, fashioned from broken pier pilings, were arranged in a square around the round fire pit. An otherwise serene setting on a Sunday morning was marred by the young woman’s dead body.
From outside the tape, he observed that she was fully clothed, lying on her side in the sand next to the rocks that surrounded the embers. He breathed in the salty ocean air and calmly pushed it out of his lungs, preparing his gag reflex to stand down while he examined yet another corpse. Despite eighteen years of police work, he had never become desensitized to inspecting the victim of a murder. He supposed that was a good sign, still clinging to some innocence of spirit in himself.
He lifted his navy windbreaker to show his badge to the officer who stood over the body, then ducked under the crime tape. “Detective Tommy Vietti, SFPD.”
The officer nodded and wrote Tommy’s name in his scene log book.
Careful to approach on the same path that the officer had used, Tommy studied the details. He stood silently, assessing the young woman’s body and any clues that might be strewn amongst the party litter.
She was positioned on her left side, her outstretched hand lying next to the fire, congealed blood covering her neck. Ever-present blood. Splattered, streaked or pooled, no murder scene was complete without it. Unlike a hard surface, where it formed a lake around the victim, hers was dried into the sand. He assumed that most of it had soaked through the granules, but, unlike salt water, some of the viscus red fluid had remained on top.
She was a petite young woman, dressed in skin-tight blue jeans, sneakers, a sweatshirt and a jacket. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. What surely had been an attractive neck only twenty-four hours earlier now had an engorged wound, her skin filleted open and dark red blood crusted along its edges.
“Victim’s name?” he asked.
“Jina Pak if we believe the car in the parking lot is hers. I haven’t searched her body for an I.D.,” the officer reported.
“Time called in?”
Tommy snapped photos of the body and environs with his cell phone. “Witnesses?”
“None,” the officer said.
“Did you interview the person who called it in?”
“Only enough to know she called. She’s standing over there with her dog.” The officer pointed to a woman forty yards down the beach who paced uncomfortably, her dog in tow on a short leash, the morning fog and dew making her clothes damp and heavy.
“Waiting for me to question her?” Tommy asked.
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“No signs of a struggle anywhere. Looks like she was sitting on the bench, enjoying the fire when her throat was slit.”
“Did we check the restrooms in the parking lot for a knife or bloody clothes?”
“They’re taped off, but I haven’t been in there.”
Tommy nodded as he removed a pair of blue latex gloves from his pocket. “I’m gonna search her pockets.” He donned the gloves and reached into the damp front pocket of her sweatshirt, removing a cell phone. It was in a pink case with her identification and two credit cards tucked into a narrow cardholder slot. He looked at her I.D.—Jina Pak. He reached into her other pockets and came up with a ponytail holder, a gum wrapper and a lanyard with a key fob and several keys on it.
He read the side of the lanyard. “Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.”
Looping the lanyard around his wrist, he pressed the home button on the victim’s cell phone and the phone came to life but was locked. On impulse, not thinking he would find success, he leaned down to the victim and picked up her small hand by her delicate wrist.
Surprisingly, her fingers were free of blood and not as cold as Tommy had expected them to be. He pressed her rubbery right thumb onto the home button of the cell, hoping the scanner would recognize a dead thumbprint. The phone screen registered Jina’s print and instantaneously displayed her home page icons. Tommy raised his eyebrows.
“Learn somethin’ new every day,” the officer said, writing in his log book.
Not wasting any time, Tommy navigated to settings and reprogrammed her passcode to SFPD1, overriding the entry of her old passcode like the guys in Computer Forensics had taught him. He told the officer the code, so he could include it in his scene report and inventory log. Tommy took a minute to read her last few texts, noting that she was on a group text with four others who had planned to attend the campfire at the beach. Their full names were in her contacts list. If he called Ryan on his way back to headquarters, Ryan could find their street addresses for interviews later this morning.
Returning his attention to the immediate scene, Tommy asked, “Since you secured the scene, has anyone walked behind the bench where she was sitting?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Let’s try to pick up a shoe print—if we can. The killer stood behind her while she was sitting on the bench looking at the fire, or maybe even enjoying a massage with her eyes closed, but he stood there to slit her throat. It’s been several hours, and sand isn’t the best for preserving a tread print, but you never know.”
“Will do.” The officer made a note.
Tommy reached down and inspected Ms. Pak’s other hand, which was under her waist. No blood. She never even had the chance to put her hands to her neck.
He could feel the biscotti and coffee churning in his stomach, so he decided it was time to leave the scene and chat with the witness on the beach who had called in the body.
“You can tell the Medical Examiner he can remove the body,” Tommy said.
Retracing his footsteps back to the main path, Tommy ducked under the tape and exited the scene. He continued down the path toward the ocean then veered south onto the dark pebbles that took him to the middle-aged woman and her dog. As he drew near, he could see she was shivering, staring into the fog as if she saw a ghost ship in the small bay. Even from a distance, he could tell she was traumatized.
“Ma’am, my name is Detective Tommy Vietti, San Francisco Police Department,” he said, stopping a few feet away, so as not to alarm her.
“Hello detective. Margie Osmund.”
“I understand you called the police this morning?”
“What time did you get to the beach?”
“Early. At dawn.”
“Where do you live?”
She pointed toward the parking lot. “Over there.”
She supplied it.
“What did you see?” he asked.
“We came down the path, and I glanced at the smoke from the fire. Then, I saw a body and assumed it was a homeless person. As I drew near, though, I saw nice jeans and shoes, then recognized it as a young woman. Something didn’t look right. She was too still, so Chester and I—” She gestured to her dog, “—walked over to get a closer look. That’s when I saw the blood on her neck and that horrible large cut in her throat—”
Margie turned suddenly and retched onto the pebbles, spraying her breakfast, then dragging Chester away so he wouldn’t lick it up.
Tommy swallowed hard and turned away, giving her some privacy. Seeing her vomit just about unleashed the contents of his own stomach, but he managed to keep them down. After a minute, he turned back to her. “I’m sorry. I’d offer you a handkerchief if I had one.”
“I can’t believe I vomited in front of you. I’ve been fighting it back for an hour, but it’s just so shocking.” She wiped her mouth on her long sleeve.
“Don’t worry. Happens to me all the time. Here’s my card if you remember anything else. You’re free to go.”
He watched her walk quickly toward the path that led to the parking lot.
Tommy wasn’t quite ready to leave, so he strolled down to the foamy water’s edge and walked toward the south end of the beach, opposite the campfire. He let his eyes wander up the terraced hillside, studying the weekend homes nestled there. Some were white and modern, others weathered from the sun and sea, their cedar shakes faded to grey. All had a view of the beach he was walking, thus held the possibility that someone had seen something.
He made a mental note to ask the local police to visit the neighborhood, pens and notebooks in hand. The murder had taken place in the dark, so the likelihood that someone saw something from those houses was low, but he had been surprised before when taking the time to talk to people.
There weren’t any signs of a struggle, so she had been with someone she knew. Given the position of her body and the pooled blood on the sand, she had died there, not been killed elsewhere and dumped. Someone she knew…
He thought about her phone and group text, then let his mind mull over his new puzzle as he watched the waves break onto the shore. The flat sunlight filtered through heavy fog, making the bay appear black as granite. He pulled his jacket collar around his neck and tried to picture this young woman alive—vibrant, laughing, enjoying herself around a fire with her friends. His heart felt heavy for her family and how devastated they would be.