A sleek head encased in black rubber surfaced from the murky lake. The diver raised a gloved hand out of the water.
Twelve bodies were already lined up on the beach, each encased in thick plastic that was not quite opaque enough to cloak their contents—bloated bodies and bulbous heads dotted with black holes where the eyes, mouth, and nose had once been. It was impossible to tell if the lumpy shapes were male or female.
The tipster who had called Gabriella Giovanni at her desk at the Bay Herald was right: Lake Josephine was a watery graveyard.
Gabriella had called the park police as soon as she began driving to the lake. Her call had paid off with a front row seat to the gruesome recovery effort. Sheriff’s officials studiously ignored her, but made damn sure all the other reporters remained far behind the crime scene tape cordoning off the beach, a small playground and a parking lot. The rest of the lakeshore was dotted with small docks that led to private homes. A TV news crew halfway across the lake was interviewing someone on the dock of his lakeside home.
This stretch of the lake, a public park, was scattered with forgotten remnants from a day at the beach—a yellow shovel, dirty sock, broken bucket, pink sippy cup. One of the deputies had kicked the items into a small pile to make room for the bodies.
Gabriella knew this popular swimming spot would normally be packed on a sweltering day like today. But police tape blocked the main road from visitors. Many families, like the foursome that arrived with beach towels, probably walked to the lakeside park from a nearby housing development. The family stopped at the crime scene tape cordoning off the entrance to the parking lot and stared. The woman, holding a little girl’s hand, stiffened as she caught sight of the rows of plastic-encased bodies on the beach.
Gabriella could stomach a lot. She’d seen her fair share of dead bodies—fresh ones at crime scenes and cold ones on steel slabs at the morgue. But the decomposing soggy messes encased in clear plastic bags were an entirely different story. As one diver flopped the new body on the sand, something on his wet suit got stuck on the plastic and it tore. Instantly, a brownish green foul mess seeped out onto the sand along with a smell that sent the diver keeling over, ripping at his mask so he could vomit.
The light breeze carried a whiff over to Gabriella. But unlike the decomposition smell that permeates a sanitary morgue, this scent was mixed with all sorts of horrors that had been festering under the plastic for God knows how long.
It was only the tiniest hint of scent, but it filled up her mouth and made Gabriella gag. She closed her eyes for a second, trying to regain her composure.
Several men in slacks and dress shirts huddled near the parking lot. One man, in sunglasses and a dark three-piece suit, kept shooting glances her way. She narrowed her eyes at him. Either he wanted to kick her out of the crime scene or he was waiting for her to realize she couldn’t handle it and leave on her own.
If you think I’m going to puke or scream just because I’m a woman, you’re wrong buddy.
She shot another glance at him. Not a cop. He was too refined. Too well-dressed. Too polished. Probably FBI. Only uptight government officials wore suits like that on an 80-degree day in California.
In a few minutes, the officials would give an official statement and then Gabriella could head back to the Bay Herald newsroom, and write up her story.
“Stai bene?” Are you okay?
It was the man in the dark suit. He stood right in front of the sun, which made his face a black mass without features. She squinted as he shifted and the sun struck her full in the eyes.
Although she looked stereotypically Italian—long dark hair, naturally full red lips, and ample curves—Gabriella was irritated. She was proud of her heritage, but something about this man automatically assuming she spoke Italian rubbed her wrong.
“I’m fine.” There was not an ounce of warmth to her voice. She’d learned years ago as a cub reporter that most men wouldn’t treat her like an equal unless she adopted their gruff seriousness.
A cloud went over the sun and Gabriella was able to see the man’s face. A long scar ran across one sculpted cheekbone and curved toward his mouth.
Gabriella ignored the man with the Italian accent and took off toward the group of reporters starting to form around a man in gray suit. She ducked under the crime scene tape and stood behind the TV cameras on tripods, balancing on one foot at a time while she dumped sand out of her sandals.
A slim man with a ruddy complexion and bushy eyebrows that matched the longish silver hair brushed back away from his forehead, adjusted his tie and cleared his throat. Gabriella rummaged in her bag and got her pen and notebook ready.
“I’m Lucrèce Winoc, from the state public safety department’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management,” the man said.
Gabriella’s pen froze on the paper. She’d expected the sheriff or maybe even FBI.
“Good afternoon and thank you for coming.” He didn’t smile. “In a minute, I’ll make a statement giving you what little information we have this early in the investigation. There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered, but we will tell you what we know that will not compromise this case. This is a very large operation, as you might have guessed, and we will not have many answers for you for some time.”
Winoc shuffled some papers, but began without glancing at them.
“At nine this morning, our office received word that a body had been found in Lake Josephine and that there might be more than just the one.”
A TV reporter leaned forward. “Is it true that a tipster called a newspaper reporter and that’s how you learned about the bodies?”
Gabriella narrowed her eyes. This guy, who looked like an underwear model you’d see in tighty whiteys on a New York City billboard, was somehow plugged in. Hmmm. She’d better keep her eye on him.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” Winoc said. “But I can tell you that the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office dive team has since recovered thirteen bodies.”
A reporter with red spiral curls gasped. Gabriella wanted to roll her eyes. Run along to your stories about celebrity scandals and leave the big kids to their work here please.
“We are not done with our recovery efforts yet so we won’t have a final count until probably sometime tomorrow. The divers will continue searching the lake through the night using spotlights that the Lake Josephine park police are providing.”
“Can you tell us how many divers are out here?” another reporter asked.
Winoc glanced at a sheriff’s deputy nearby.
“Eight on each team,” the man said.
Winoc looked down at his sheet now and began to read. “This is an unspeakably horrific crime. We have lots of questions and very few answers, but rest assured, working together with the cooperation of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office and the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s unit, we will get to the bottom of this. We are going to be doing everything in our power to identify these tragic victims and make sure the perpetrators are brought to justice. Thank you. Any questions?”
“Mob?” one reporter asked. That’s what Gabriella was going to ask, thinking of the man with the Italian accent. She glanced behind her. He was still on the beach, huddled with some other officials over one of the bodies. She watched him prod something on the sand with the toe of his expensive looking leather shoes. He glanced her way and she quickly turned back around. Something about the man made her uneasy.
“At this point,” Winoc continued. “This early in the investigation, we have no way of knowing who is behind this.”
The reporter with the good hair leaned over and whispered in Gabriella’s ear. “Cartel.”
So, that’s why Homeland Security was involved.
He drew back with a knowing look. Gabriella leaned over and pressed her lips nearly against his ear, her voice softer than a whisper. “Just who are you banging anyway? The head of the CIA?” She pulled back and raised an eyebrow, waiting.
The woman with the red ringlets scowled.
The boy gave an impish shrug. “I have my ways.”
She scribbled her cell phone number on the back of her card and handed it to him. “We should talk.”
“Over dinner?” He smiled.
“How about this: I’ll buy you a hot chocolate for your troubles,” Gabriella said. “I’m sure Little Bo Beep over there would be happy to have dinner with you.”
Stuffing her notebook in her bag, Gabriella turned to leave. He touched her arm, stopping her.
“Then I’m sure you have a lot to teach me.”
She walked away without answering.
As the TV reporters rushed to edit footage in their big white vans, Gabriella huddled under a tiny tree that offered a bit of shade and dialed her husband, Agent Sean Donovan. The scent of Jasmine drifted by, a welcome relief from the putrid smell down by the beach. Gabriella leaned back against the rough bark of the tree, suddenly tired after standing for the past three hours.
Gabriella spoke before Donovan said hello: “Cartel.”
“I know. I’m at the airport. I’m heading out. Your mom’s home with Grace.”
Gabriella’s heart clenched a little. She wished Donovan had never taken that job with the DEA last year. At least when he was a detective he’d been able to come home most nights.
“I don’t even get to kiss you goodbye?”
Donovan laughed. “You can make up for it next week when we’re in Jamaica.”
“God, I can’t wait. When’s the last time we took a vacation. Away from Grace that is?”
“That’d be never, Ella. That’s why there’ll be lots of kissing.”
This time she laughed, as well. But quickly sobered. “I already miss you. How long will you be gone this time?”
“I told them I needed to be back by Saturday. I said I had important plans with my wife.”
“You’ve said that before and they haven’t listened.”
“This time I’m dead serious and they know it. Nothing will stop me from my vacation alone with my wife. I’ll be home in time. I promise. I’ll be there.”
“You better be, Donovan.”
She clicked off and stared into the distance, not seeing anything.