Scarlet Moreno hated surprises.
It might have started when she was eight, when the excitement of seeing her dad show up at school in uniform was extinguished when he announced that her mom was leaving them. For the first time in her life, she’d seen tears in her burly father’s eyes. Or the shock when, two years later, Amy Moreno remarried into a ready-made family. Or, two years after that, when Amy told Scarlet and her younger brother, John, that she was pregnant with their half-sister.
When she was a cop, her job was full of the unknown, but there were no big surprises because Scarlet had learned early on that most people lied. Yet she thought she could count on her colleagues since they fought the same battles. Until she’d walked into a sting operation that nearly got her killed because—surprise!—she’d been set up to be taken down. By one of her own.
Again, the surprise was on her—she had no idea to this day who wanted her dead. She doubted she ever would, no matter how much she scratched at old wounds.
But she’d never stop searching for answers.
Scarlet rubbed her left elbow where the phantom pain burned whenever she thought of that day three years ago. She’d been shot in her leg and back, too, but it was her elbow that continued to pain her. She blamed that on the pins that made her bones work the way they were supposed to.
So when she walked into her appointment with successful plastic surgeon Thomas Cavanaugh to show him pictures of his adulterous wife and collect the second half of her fee, she was more than a little irritated—and surprised—when she found Cavanaugh half-naked with his secretary. Worse, she couldn’t un-see the blowjob he was receiving.
As far as she was concerned, Thomas and Tina Cavanaugh deserved each other.
She dreaded fighting traffic to the Santa Ana office of Moreno & Hart to drop the thousand-dollar check on her partner’s desk. She sent Krista a text message that she wouldn’t be back today, then headed toward her apartment in Newport.
Some people might’ve thought she was wealthy, living in Newport Beach two short blocks from the Pacific Ocean, until they saw the one-room hovel she called home. She didn’t need much; she preferred to keep it simple. Her deck on the roof of the semi-popular bar off Balboa Avenue was twice the size of the studio, and most of the time she slept outside in a hammock. Retired con man Diego Hernandez gave her cheap rent in exchange for keeping an eye on the place. Diego liked the idea of a former cop living upstairs, especially since he got a few hundred extra every month under the table because the property wasn’t zoned as a residence. And as long as Diego didn’t do anything dirtier than taking modest bets on sports, Scarlet was happy to help.
Cavanaugh’s office was in Irvine, and when Scarlet hit the 405, it was already packed. She detoured over to University Drive—she would rather take the long way and actually be moving, than sit in stop-and-slow traffic all the way home.
Her cell phone rang and Scarlet clicked her phone over to Bluetooth. “’Ello,” she said to Krista.
“Good thing you’re not coming back to the office. There’s an accident at the 5 and Costa Mesa Freeways, and the roads are packed with people trying to find another way. I’m going to stay late and get some paperwork done.”
“Appreciate it. If you want to swing by the bar on your way home, I’ll treat.”
“Rain check. I have a meeting with Diane Stark first thing in the morning. Last time I hung out at your place, I was toasted the next day.”
“I warned you not to drink more than one of Isaac’s killer margaritas.” Scarlet maneuvered her Jeep Wrangler around a slow sedan. The young, female driver was talking on her cell phone and gesturing with her other hand. Idiot.
“What?” Krista said, and Scarlet realized she must have spoken out loud.
“Stupid drivers,” she complained. “So, why are you meeting Stark on Saturday?” While Scarlet had no life outside of work, Krista owned a house in Huntington Beach she’d inherited from her grandmother. She spent most weekends working, even though she had a laundry list of problems that came from owning an old house but not having extra money to hire someone. Diane Stark just stole another weekend from her partner.
“She wants a status report, and her husband has a golf date.”
“My contact with Fieldstone Insurance liked the work we did on the worker’s comp fraud case last month. He said he’d be sending more our way.”
“Insurance fraud is definitely a step up from cheating spouses."
“I, for one, would much prefer fraud to be our bread-and-butter than sex.” She paused. “That came out wrong.”
Krista laughed. “See you Monday,” she said, then hung up.
Funny thing about Krista—Scarlet had never expected they’d become friends. Krista was five years younger, and had been a rookie cop on the task force that nearly got them both killed. When they’d first met, Krista was green as grass. But what she lacked in experience she made up for in determination. Plus, she had balls. On that fateful night, when she should’ve abandoned Scarlet to save her own ass, she’d stayed. That kind of loyalty was important in their new line of work, where things could go sideways quickly. There had been plenty of times when Scarlet had called Krista for help getting out a jam. And it cut both ways. If Scarlet’s phone went off in the middle of the night, chances were it was Krista.
Scarlet cut over to Jamboree, which would take her right into Newport. She almost immediately came upon a two-car accident pulled over by the side of the embankment. A fairly steep drop on the right was protected by well-dented guardrails. A deadly drop, as evidence by several roadside altars along this stretch. This fender-bender was far from fatal: a white Volkswagen Jetta had rear-ended a gold Lexus. It must have just happened because the drivers were still in their cars—a blond female in the Lexus, a blond male in the Jetta.
No one else stopped to help them, but that didn’t surprise Scarlet. This was southern California; the drivers all wore blinders. However, in her experience, more than one would put their calls on hold to dial 911. Let someone else deal with it seemed to be their motto.
Scarlet pulled over, more out of habit than because she wanted to. Both cars suffered substantial exterior damage, but unless something was broken inside, they looked functional.
She removed her gun from the center console and slipped it into the holster on the small of her back. She’d spent five years on patrol with LAPD before she made detective; even in an accident, you never knew what could happen. She had a concealed carry weapons permit and always had her sidearm with her.
She got out and slipped a loose-fitting blazer over her tank top, even though it was ninety-some degrees and she was sweating. As she approached the vehicles, she visibly inspected the markings on the road. Something seemed odd, but the gravel made it impossible to analyze tire impressions. The woman emerged from her car while the male driver remained in the Jetta. He looked scared. Drunk? Four in the afternoon … It was certainly possible. The woman looked angry and ready to knock his block off. If some bastard had hit Scarlet, she would’ve felt the same way.
“Hello, ma’am,” Scarlet said. “Are you okay?” How easy it was to revert back to cop-speak.
“What do you think? He hit me! On purpose!”
Scarlet wished she’d called 911 before she got out of her Jeep. This sounded like they knew each other, which made it a domestic situation. Her least favorite.
“Let me call CHP and they can take a report for insurance,” Scarlet began, but the blonde cut her off.
“Jimmy already did, I’m sure.” The woman was in her twenties and had the perfect hair, face and boobs for a well-maintained So-Cal prima donna. “Bastard.”
She took two steps toward Jimmy’s car and Scarlet stepped in front of her. “Ma’am, let’s take a walk.”
“Who the hell are you?”
Scarlet wished she had a badge to go with her gun, but she simply put on her cop face and said, “Scarlet Moreno, private detective.” She handed the woman her business card.
Jimmy opened his door and jumped out. “This woman is insane! She rammed into me and no one’s going to believe me. She’s fucking crazy!”
Scarlet pivoted so she could keep an eye on both of them. “Sir, I need you to take one step back and stop shouting.” She gave him one of her cards as well. Krista kept telling her to work on getting more business, get their business cards out there. Maybe Jimmy was a CEO of a company who wanted to hire Moreno & Hart to vet employees. Background checks were boring, but paid well. And better, Scarlet could do half the work on her deck while listening to the ocean waves roll in.
Jimmy complied, but then the blonde stepped forward. “Ma’am, take a step back,” Scarlet said.
The woman stopped moving toward Jimmy, but didn’t backtrack. Scarlet knew that she’d already drawn the line, and if she didn’t make the woman retreat, she’d lose control of the situation.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Wendy Anderson.” She glared. “Why?”
Scarlet said, “Wendy, please step back.” She didn’t break eye contact, she didn’t blink, she didn’t raise her voice.
It was clear to Scarlet that Wendy Anderson didn’t take orders from people. But it was also clear from Wendy’s expression that she was assessing the situation and deciding whether to push. Maybe she only heard detective when Scarlet spoke, or maybe she didn’t understand that Scarlet had no authority over her, but she took one (small) step back. Scarlet refrained from smiling over her victory.
“Sir, your name?”
“Mr. Douglas, did you already call 911?”
“Yes. I thought I was going to be dead before anyone got here!”
Newport PD’s response time was one of the best in the county. “How long ago did you call?”
Almost as she thought that a few minutes weren’t very long, she saw a California Highway Patrol coming down Jamboree toward them.
“She wants to kill me.”
“Oh, God, you’re so damn melodramatic. You hit me.”
“Bullshit! You’re lying to a cop now? I’m sorry, Wendy, for everything, but this is childish.”
Scarlet glanced over at the Lexus and now she realized why she’d thought something was strange when she first approached. The tire impressions in the gravel were curved, as if Douglas had turned in sharply from the street and parked. But then the rear tires went straight back four feet from the curve. Two different cars might have made the impressions, but with the naked eye, they matched. Four feet—he wouldn’t have been in park, and he would have been rammed hard. A good forensics team could prove it.
But right now, it was a he said, she said situation.
She glanced over her shoulder. What was taking CHP so long to get out of his car? Then she saw a second CHP vehicle approach.
Wendy and Jim were arguing and the venom was escalating. Scarlet put her fingers to her lips and whistled. They shut up.
“Listen, I don’t know or care what your beef is with each other, but you’d both better settle down before the chippers get over here and want answers. Wendy, go stand by your car. Jim, stay here. Do not move. Got it?”
Thankfully, they both did as she said. As a female cop, she’d learned early on that eye contact, attitude, and follow-through were all crucial in maintaining control of potentially volatile situations. Scarlet walked over to where the two CHP officers were getting out of their vehicles. She pulled out her ID, then flipped it to make sure that the officer saw her concealed carry permit. “Scarlet Moreno, private investigator. Happened upon the scene and stopped to help.”
“Moreno,” the first officer said. “I know a John Moreno with LAPD.”
“My brother,” she said, though the twinge of longing came back. She didn’t tell the cop she’d been with LAPD for twelve years. She handed both of them her card. It didn’t hurt to share her business cards with cops—they sometimes shot business over to P.I.s. Not her and Krista, unfortunately, but that was because they all had their favorites, and ninety-nine percent of the time the favorites were retired cops they’d known from the job. But like Krista told her, pass out cards and something would come back to them.
The chippers introduced themselves. Ericson and Woods. Scarlet gave them a brief rundown, ending with, “It’s pure domestic bullshit, but potentially volatile.”
Ericson said, “You’re welcome to stay.”
“Thanks, but I have an appointment,” she lied. “I just stopped to make sure no one was injured.”
“Any other witnesses?”
“Not that I know about—I didn’t see the collision. If I were you, I’d check the skid marks and tires. At first glance, Wendy’s story makes sense, but looking at the physical evidence—I’m inclined to buy the guy’s story, or a version thereof. But being a domestic issue, neither of them is telling the whole truth.”
Woods snorted. “It’s up to the insurance company to weed through the bullshit. We’ll just take the report and make sure no one needs a medic. Thanks for the heads-up.”
Scarlet considered staying just for the humor of the squabble, but instead walked back to her Jeep and drove off as the CHP officers talked to the two drivers. This was domestic drama, the one part of being a cop she didn’t miss.
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