By Debra Webb
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Jess is ready to start the next chapter in her life as the new deputy chief of Birmingham’s major crimes division. But with her first love, Chief of Police Dan Burnett, acting as her new boss, it looks like Jess won’t be able to put the past behind her that easily.
Jess has decided to focus all of her attention on work when a celebrated ballet instructor is found dead by one of her students. Though Jess’s instincts tell her otherwise, the death is ruled an accident, and the case is assigned to another division. Still, Jess can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to the story, and her investigation leads her into the worlds of Birmingham’s gang culture and its powerful elite.
Now Jess’s investigation has dug a little too deep, and there’s a target painted on her own forehead. Will she be able to solve the crime before her own life is in jeopardy?
“Compelling main characters and chilling villains elevate Debra Webb’s Faces of Evil series into the realm of high-intensity thrillers that readers won’t be able to resist.” — New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons
“Just when you think Debra Webb can’t get any better, she does. Obession is her best work yet. This gritty, edge of your seat, white knuckle thriller is peopled with tough, credible characters and a brilliant plot that will keep you guessing until the very end. Move over Jack Reacher – Jess Harris is comin’ to town.” — Cindy Gerard, New York Times bestselling author, award winning author of the Black Ops, Inc. series
“Debra Webb’s name says it all…” — Karen Rose
Table of Contents
A Preview of Rage
A Preview of Obsession
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It was so cold. The chill crept deeper and deeper into her body, like a snake slithering through her veins.
How could she be so cold? Summer was in full force in Birmingham. The one thing she shouldn't be was cold.
Yet she was so damned cold. Her body twitched, then stilled, probably because of the strange chill.
What in the world was wrong with her?
Darcy Chandler stared up at the glittering chandelier far, far overhead. Hung high above the winding staircase that flowed upward from the grand marble foyer, the lights twinkled, sending jeweled patterns over the vivid blue walls.
She told herself to move. To get up and see that the rehearsals were on track after lunch. But she couldn't move. Strange. All she seemed able to do was lie there as the cold overtook her completely. It was the most peculiar sensation.
Maybe she should call out for help. Surely someone would hear her and explain why she was so very cold and why she couldn't move.
Her mind screamed but her lips wouldn't form the words. Her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth. A foul, coppery taste swelled around her tongue, threatening to spill past her lips.
This was completely ridiculous. She had to get up… to tell someone… to do something.
There was such silence around her… inside her… as if her very heart had stopped beating.
What a silly thought.
Something warm brushed her ear.
Someone was beside her!
Thank God. Maybe they would know why it was so cold and why she couldn't seem to move.
Darcy tried to turn her head but her body simply would not obey the command.
Wait! She could hear something!
Words… someone was whispering in her ear.
Help me! She tried to shout, but again her voice failed her.
She struggled to focus on the words but everything was changing… swirling somehow and growing dimmer and dimmer until the darkness swallowed her. She suddenly remembered the story she'd learned in Bible school about Jonah and the whale. What a thing to recall just now. She hadn't thought of Bible school in decades.
Oh, she was so very cold.
Why had the lights gone out? Why couldn't she see?
More whispered words, the sound so faint, echoed in her brain.
"Dead ballerinas don't get to dance."
Cotton Avenue, Birmingham, Alabama
Monday, July 26, 2:45 p.m.
I need an estimate on time of death as soon as possible."
The young doctor who Jess suspected was new to Jefferson County's coroner's office shot her a look from his kneeling position next to the victim. "Chief Harris, I just got here. There's an order to the steps I'm required to take."
Definitely new. Once he'd played his part at enough crime scenes he would understand that there was nothing orderly about murder.
Jess rearranged her lips into a smile that was as far from patient as the harried expression on the inexperienced ME's face. "I'm well aware of those steps, Doctor, but"—she glanced down the long center hall to ensure herself that Sergeant Harper was successfully keeping the potential witnesses away from the French doors and windows that overlooked the mansion's palatial gardens—"I have six little girls out back who are in various stages of hysteria and their mothers are chomping at the bit to take them home. I need time of death so I can question them with some reasonable grasp on the timeline we're dealing with here."
Before their mothers got any antsier and decided to lawyer up, Jess kept to herself.
The fact was she had heard enough rumors about the typical dance mom mentality to understand that once the shock of this tragedy wore off, things would change. Not only would lawyers be called in but the ladies would close ranks to protect whatever secrets they felt compelled to keep, particularly if those secrets carried any ramifications whatsoever on their daughters' placement on the food chain of this exclusive dance studio.
Technically, Jess was supposed to ask if they wanted to have their attorneys present during questioning, but mere technicalities had never hampered her before. With the level of panic among the girls as well as their mothers when Jess first arrived, who would be surprised if she failed to ask if one or more wanted their attorney present?
Unmoved by Jess's explanation, Doctor What's-his-name shifted his attention back to the victim sprawled in an unnatural manner on the unforgiving marble floor. "Like I said, there are steps. I'll get to that one momentarily."
Jess pressed her lips together to prevent saying something she would regret. What was it about this younger generation that prompted such flagrant disrespect? She hitched her bag higher on her shoulder. When she was his age, early thirties she guessed, Jess would never have sassed her elders. She wouldn't do that now, for pity's sake. The notion that she was nearly a decade older than the ME was considerably depressing, but it was a reality she'd learned to deal with since whizzing past the dreaded forty milestone.
Whoever said that sixty was the new thirty was so very full of crap. Forty wasn't even the new thirty.
Well—she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose—there wasn't a thing she could do about getting older. The insolence, however, she refused to stand for. Just because the still-wet-behind-the-ears ME was cute didn't mean she intended to ignore his attitude. "Excuse me…" He gazed up at her with egregious reluctance. She lifted her eyebrows in question. "Doctor…?"
"Schrader. Dr. Harlan Schrader."
"Well, Dr. Schrader, I understand you have steps, but if you would kindly just get your little thermometer out of your nifty bag and give me an approximate time of death I promise I'll be out of your way." She propped her lips into a smile she hoped wasn't too blatantly forged and added the perfunctory magic word, "Please."
"Okay." He held up his gloved hands in a show of dramatic surrender. "I'll do that right now."
"Thank you, Dr. Schrader."
Jess stepped to the door and surveyed the activity beyond the official vehicles cluttering the cobblestoned drive that encircled the massive fountain in front of the house. The historic mansion sat in the middle of seven elegant and rare acres. With any luck the towering oak and pecan trees with their low-slung branches prevented street traffic from identifying the official vehicles ominously gathered. At the street, BPD uniforms guarded the gated entrance to the property in an effort to keep the curious and the newshounds at bay once word hit the airwaves. Having the press show up in droves, and in this posh neighborhood they definitely would, complicated any investigation. Frankly, she was surprised the impressive residence didn't come with its own private security team. Oddly, there was no security, not even at the ornate, towering entry gate, and no housekeeping staff—at least not today.
The crime scene techs had already documented the scene with photographs and video. Prints and trace materials were being collected now in hopes of discovering some sort of usable evidence. Sergeant Harper had gotten the call from BPD's finest at one forty-eight. He and Lieutenant Prescott had rushed over without mentioning that as of today they were no longer assigned to Crimes Against Persons. Suited Jess just fine. Sitting on her laurels until a case was assigned to her new SPU, Special Problems Unit, wasn't how she'd wanted to start off her first week in the department.
Then again, foul play had not been established in this case as of yet. Jess considered the position of the body in the foyer next to the grand staircase. It appeared the victim, Darcy Chandler, had fallen over the upstairs railing to her death. Or she'd jumped. Either way, her death was, to their knowledge thus far, unaccompanied and obviously of a violent nature. An investigation was standard protocol.
When she first arrived Jess had followed the techs up the stairs and checked the landing. Her attention wandered there now. The hardwood floor was clear of debris and substances that might have posed a trip hazard or made it slippery. The railing didn't meet the height criteria for current building codes, but with historic homes, and this one dated back to the mid-1800s, features like the railing were grandfathered in. A good thing for those who appreciated history, not so good for Ms. Chandler.
The only odd aspect of the scene Jess had noted so far was that Ms. Chandler's very expensive fuchsia-colored Gucci pumps, which exactly matched the elegant sheath she wore, sat next to the railing on the second floor. The careful placement gave the appearance that she had removed the shoes and positioned them just so as if she feared scarring her favorite pair of designer shoes while taking her fatal dive. Judging by the meticulous organization of her closets as well as the pristine condition of the house in general, the victim was unquestionably a perfectionist to some degree. That could very well explain the decision to remove and set aside her shoes. Maybe. But in Jess's opinion the shoes merited a closer look.
"I would estimate time of death," Dr. Schrader announced, drawing Jess's attention back to him as he checked his wristwatch, "at between twelve noon and one."
Less than two hours before the arrival of the BPD. "Thank you, Dr. Schrader."
The glance he cast her way advised that her gratitude was not appreciated any more than her pushy approach had been. She'd have to find a way to get back in his good graces another time. Maybe a gift certificate from one of the trendy shops in the Galleria would do the trick since the polo, sports jacket, and stone-washed jeans he wore could have been stripped right off the mannequins adorning the storefronts of said shops.
Right now, however, a woman was dead and that was Jess's top priority. She could make nice with Dr. I'm-Too-Sexy-for-Manners later.
Armed with the vital piece of information she needed, she headed for the French doors at the end of the long hall that cut through the center of one of Birmingham's oldest and grandest homes. She squared her shoulders, cleared her throat, and exited to the terrace that flowed out into the gardens designed by some master gardener who hailed from England. And who, according to a bronze plaque that boasted the bragging rights, descended from the gardener of the royal family.
Only the rich and self-proclaimed fabulous would display the pedigree of the guy who cut the grass and watered the roses. Where Jess lived she was lucky if the guys who wielded the lawn mowers and weed whackers spoke English much less shared their pedigrees. That information would likely get them deported. Not that Jess minded one way or the other as long as the job was done properly. Considering she spent the better part of her formative years in a carousel of foster homes, she wasn't one to judge.
Sergeant Chet Harper met Jess just outside the grand doors. "I don't know how much longer Lieutenant Prescott can keep the girls calm and their mothers compliant. One's already demanded to know if they're suspects."
Jess resisted the urge to groan. "Thank you, Sergeant."
Prescott, the girls, and their mothers were seated in the butterfly garden. As soon as Harper had called, Jess had instructed him to see that the girls did not discuss the incident among themselves or with anyone else. Not an easy task. Particularly once the mothers had started to arrive and to demand to see their children. The girls all had cell phones and had called their mothers while the assistant teacher called 911.
Guess who showed up first? Not the police or EMS. Which guaranteed the scene had been contaminated repeatedly by little fingers and feet as well as curious and horrified mothers.
God, she didn't want to think about it. Whether a murder had occurred or not, the scene should be handled with the same vigilant protocol.
"FYI," Harper added with a knowing glance above his stylish Ray-Bans, "Andrea insisted on calling the chief."
Jess did groan this time. Andrea Denton, Chief of Police Daniel Burnett's stepdaughter from his last failed marriage and a survivor from the first case Jess had worked with the Birmingham Police Department scarcely two weeks ago. Funny, this was the third case Jess had supported since returning to her hometown and Andrea had been a part of all three. The poor girl apparently had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I suppose he's coming," Jess commented, trying valiantly not to show her disappointment. There was nothing like having the boss watching over her shoulder on her first official case as a deputy chief. Even if the boss was Dan—a man with whom she had a difficult-to-define off-duty relationship. Leaving the bureau and returning to her hometown was supposed to have uncomplicated her life. Not.
Clearly she had been delusional to believe for one second that she could exist in the same city, much less department, with Dan and avoid complications.
Marvelous. "Any luck locating the husband?" Darcy Chandler, the one and only daughter of one of the city's most noteworthy families, was married to some apparently equally famous Russian dancer, now retired and teaching ballet classes to the children of Birmingham's who's who. "What's his name again?"
"Alexander Mayakovsky," Harper reminded her. "Haven't located him yet. His cell still goes straight to voice mail."
"Since this is where he works, he's obviously not at work." Frustration and impatience creased Jess's brow. She consciously forced the lines away. She had enough wrinkles, all of which had taken up residence in all the wrong places on her face. Not that there was a right place, she amended. What she didn't have was the vic's husband. The worst part of working an unattended death, whether accidental, suicide, or homicide, was informing the next of kin.
"Go to the vic's parents. Maybe they'll have some idea where he is. Get as much information as you can before you give them the bad news." As coldhearted as that tactic sounded, it was the only way to glean coherent information in a timely manner. And when a person died some way other than by natural causes, he or she deserved a timely investigation. Since Darcy's parents hadn't shown up, there was reason to believe unofficial word hadn't reached them yet.
That would change very soon.
Harper went on his way and Jess steeled herself for entering foreign territory. "You can do this," she murmured.
As she approached the mothers, their prepubescent daughters clinging to their bosoms, all six women started talking at once.
Jess had interviewed every manner of witness and person of interest, including more than her share of sociopaths and a handful of psychopaths, but she'd never dreaded conducting interviews more than she did at this very moment.
Children absolutely, completely, and utterly unnerved her. Give her a run-of-the-mill serial killer any day of the week.
It was true. Though Jess loved her niece and nephew, she had no children of her own and there was a good reason for that. She lacked patience and all those other soft and earthy motherly skills. And at forty-something-or-other she had no desire to deal with the issue.
As if the good Lord wanted to remind her that going against the natural scheme of things made Him less than happy, the children all started whining at once.
Simultaneously, only in louder voices, the mothers wanted to know why they were being detained like suspects. Did they need to provide their fingerprints? Where was Alex, Darcy's husband?
Jess wouldn't mind knowing the answer to that last question herself.
"I know this is difficult," she said above their escalating demands. "But it's imperative that we all stay as calm as possible." Thankfully the whole frazzled entourage fell silent. "My name is Deputy Chief Jess Harris. At this time it won't be necessary to take any fingerprints, but I will be interviewing each of you, along with your daughters."
Evidently finding her announcement utterly disagreeable or somehow debatable, the women launched more questions.
"As I said," Jess cut them off firmly, "I know this is very difficult, but I need your patience and your cooperation. Ms. Chandler is counting on us to do this right."
The suggestion seemed to calm the mothers. Unfortunately it had a different effect on the daughters. A fresh wave of tears commenced. Jess cringed inwardly at the idea that she'd made the little girls cry again. She really was no good at this.
"Lieutenant Prescott, if you would keep these ladies comfortable while they wait for their turns, we'll get this done."
"Whatever you say, Chief."
Prescott's tone was pleasant enough but the irritation simmering in her gaze didn't quite rise to the challenge. She was not any happier now than she'd been a week ago when word that Jess had gotten the position of deputy chief had flowed along the BPD grapevine like a bad Chianti.
Prescott's subsequent assignment to Jess's unit just seemed like bad karma for them both. Case in point, Prescott had wanted to start the interviews with the daughters before Jess even arrived at the scene.
No, the woman was not happy.
Jess shifted her attention to Andrea, the chief's stepdaughter and the assistant teacher at this ballet school while she was home from college for the summer. "Andrea, if you would come with me to the conservatory, please."
Relieved to escape the mayhem that would no doubt descend as soon as she was out of hearing range, Jess marched toward the conservatory. Andrea followed, still dressed in her black leotard and dance slippers.
The conservatory was a massive addition to the back of the house that had likely been used at one time as a sunroom and a place for entertaining. For the past thirty or so years it had served as a dance studio. First by Darcy Chandler's nationally celebrated grandmother, then, more recently, by her and her famous husband whose name Jess still couldn't pronounce properly no matter that Harper had repeated it to her three times.
When the door was closed, Jess took a moment to survey the space. Gleaming wood floors had replaced what had likely once been tile or stone. A soaring ceiling was surrounded by towering glass walls that allowed sunlight to fill the room. The view of the gardens was nothing short of spectacular. Talk about living like royalty.
With a gesture toward the one table surrounded by chairs near the garden entrance, Jess asked, "Why don't we sit here?"
Visibly shaken, Andrea wilted into a chair. The nineteen-year-old dragged in a halting breath. "I can't believe Ms. Darcy is dead." She shook her head. "Every time I try to get on with my life something else happens."
Jess had to give her that. The poor girl had been abducted by a couple who'd gone around the bend. Then, only last week, a serial killer had used her to get at Dan in an attempt to bait Jess. Now this. She imagined Andrea was ready to put this summer behind her. Returning to college for her sophomore year was likely looking better every day.
"I can certainly understand how you would feel that way." Jess sat down on the opposite side of the table so she could keep an eye on the garden and any new arrivals. "Why don't you tell me what happened here this morning? Start with when you arrived and go from there."
Andrea moistened her lips and visibly braced herself. "I came at ten this morning and worked with the competition team. Then at noon we broke for lunch." She glanced beyond the glass walls of the conservatory toward the French doors that led from the terrace into the main house. "That's when Ms. Darcy went inside to make some calls."
Jess fished for her pad and pencil to make a few notes. "How long have you known Darcy?"
"Her grandmother was my ballet teacher until I was ten. By then Ms. Darcy and her husband, Alex, had taken over the school. I was on the competition team until I left for college. Ms. Darcy offered me a position as assistant teacher when I came home in May for the summer."
"Is Darcy's grandmother still involved with the studio?" The Chandlers were one of Birmingham's most prominent families, but between college and working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation at Quantico, Jess had lived away for the past two decades. She'd never been very good at keeping up with the city's elite anyway. But you couldn't grow up in Birmingham and not know who the Chandlers were.
"She lives at Southern Plantation. Even at eighty she attends all the local competitions."
Jess knew the place. High-end, exclusive senior living for those with the proper bank balance and no desire to be troubled with overseeing a grand home. "Was the vic—Darcy—with you and the students most of the morning?"
Andrea nodded. "Except for going in the house to make phone calls, but she came back out a few minutes after that."
"The six girls waiting on the terrace have been here since ten as well?"
She nodded again. "There were eight others but they left at lunch." Andrea shifted her gaze back to Jess then. "There are fourteen girls on the Alabama Belles competition team. The ones still here compete as the international team. They stay for lunch and then we rehearse until three when their mothers pick them up."
"There was no one else here?"
"I didn't see anyone. But I didn't go back in the house until… Katrina found her… like that."
"So Darcy served lunch to you and the girls after the others were gone?" At some point the vic was separated from her students for the last time. For how long? With whom, if anyone? Those were the answers Jess needed. Seemed simple enough, but getting straight answers from the witnesses after a tragedy like this was more often than not painstaking and complicated.
"We had a picnic," Andrea explained. "We do that a couple of times a week. Usually on Mondays and Fridays. The mothers take turns bringing the food. Today it was Ms. Dresher's turn. She dropped off the food just before noon. The girls and I brought everything outside for the picnic while Ms. Darcy saw her out."
Jess jotted down the Dresher name and the fact that she'd delivered lunch. "Did Darcy join your picnic after seeing Ms. Dresher to the door?"
"She stayed in the house." Andrea looked around the room as if maintaining eye contact was too uncomfortable. "She was still busy with phone calls. We had lunch and then came back in here to begin rehearsal."
"What time did you become aware that there had been an accident?" The call had come into 911 about one fifteen. Judging by the ME's estimation of time of death, Chandler may not have been dead very long when her body was discovered.
"We were about to start rehearsal but we needed the boas for our routine and I sent Katrina inside to get them," Andrea explained, sadness clouding her face. "The girls had been playing upstairs earlier, before rehearsals began this morning, and two of them had left their boas up there. Some of the moms have appointments or whatever and drop their girls off a little early. Ms. Darcy lets them play in the upstairs den." She chewed her lower lip a moment or two before continuing. "A few minutes after going for the boas Katrina came rushing back. She was in tears and shouting that something was wrong with Ms. Darcy."
"When you say a few minutes, do you mean ten or fifteen? Five?"
Andrea shrugged. "I don't know. The other girls and I were doing warm-ups and talking. I really didn't pay attention."
That was as good as Jess was going to get on the timing. "So you didn't see Darcy alive again after she went inside the house with Ms. Dresher?"
"The next time I saw her she was… dead."
Jess surveyed the girls waiting somberly with their mothers. All six wore hot pink leotards. Four had their boas hanging around their shoulders. Her interest lingered on the Dresher woman and her daughter Katrina. Harper had given Jess a who's who rundown.
"Did anything out of the ordinary happen this morning?" Jess asked, focusing on Andrea once more. "Did Darcy seem upset about anything?"
Andrea shrugged again. "No more than usual." She twisted her fingers together. "She and Mr. Alex are separated and things have been awkward."
Instincts on point, Jess rephrased a pivotal question. "Did you see Alex today?"
"Not today. He…" Andrea fell silent.
Jess leaned forward a fraction. "It's very important that we know as many details as possible if we're going to understand what happened."
"Ms. Darcy filed for divorce. They've been fighting for weeks." Her slender shoulders slumped with defeat and disloyalty. "The rumor is he's cheating on her with one of the moms."
The image of Darcy Chandler lying on that cold marble floor, her skull likely shattered along with untold other internal injuries, filled Jess's mind. The shoes removed and set carefully aside filtered in next. That part just didn't fit, unless they were already there before Chandler's fall. Maybe forgotten for some reason. But then where were the shoes she had been wearing at the time of death? Had to be those Gucci pumps. They matched her dress. A dress that she would have had to hike up in order to throw a leg over that upstairs railing. That, Jess would come back to. For now, she needed info on Chandler's husband, the Russian.
"Do you have reason to suspect that rumor is true?" This was a small, elite dance studio. The likelihood of any secret staying secret for long was somewhere in the vicinity of zero.
Andrea scrunched her face as if it pained her to speak on the subject. "That's what everybody thinks but I can't say for sure it's true."
"Any idea which mother the others thought was the troublemaker?" Beyond Andrea, six of the mothers waited—all wealthy, all gorgeous, whether by nature or by design. Could be any one of them.
Andrea gave another shake of her head, her eyes carefully averted. She suspected someone but she wasn't saying. Jess could push for that when and if the time came.
"Andrea, would you say you know Darcy as well as any of the other assistant teachers or students, or moms, for that matter?"
Hesitation slowed her response but she nodded with conviction.
"I know you're upset," Jess hedged, "but I want you to answer the next question without analyzing your answer first. I'll ask the question and you say exactly what comes to mind in that instant. Okay?"
Jess reached across the table and patted her hand. "Thank you, Andrea. I know this is just an awful time for you, but you're helping more than you know."
Tears shimmered in her eyes as she nodded, her lips pressed tightly together.
"Here we go. Do you believe"—Jess watched Andrea's face closely for the coming reaction—"Darcy was capable of taking her own life?"
"No!" Her eyebrows drew together as she underscored her answer with an adamant shake of her head. "No way. She would never do that!"
4 1/2 stars!
****"Jess Harris doesn't have to go looking for trouble--it finds her. Jess is one of the toughest, smartest, most stubborn lady cops to strut the pages lately, but Webb's given her just enough vulnerability to keep her likable. This third entry in the Faces of Evil series is a hard-to-put-down police procedural with pitch-perfect voice, well-developed characters and a setting that is as much a part of the cast as the protagonists."—RT Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 384 pages