Dancing in the Dark
Random Heroes Collection, Book 5
Ballantine Books, Pocito Press
In paperback and e-book, 2015
Original paperback, 2003
She was hiding from the future. Now she'll do anything to live until tomorrow.
Two years after the accidental death of her husband and son, Sara Martin is still wearing her wedding band, using it as a shield against a future without love. Then a persistent prank caller shatters her fragile peace of mind and brings detective Eric D'Angelo into her life. Eric reminds her of the passion she never thought she'd feel again—and the idea of surrendering to it scares her. But Sara will soon discover that she never knew the meaning of the word fear...until now.
Even for a seasoned detective like Eric D'Angelo, the rash of murders haunting the city of Austin seems unbelievably grisly. Still, he's worked enough of these cases to know that eventually, even a murderer as meticulous as the Sinatra killer will make a mistake. Then Sara becomes the madman's target. Between fighting off the ghosts in her past and the monster in her present, Eric is forced to wonder if their hopes for a future together will ever see the light of day...
"Readers will never be able to listen to the seductive tones of Sinatra again without remembering the dangers of DANCING IN THE DARK. With its strong characterizations, unexpected plot twists and surprising ending, DANCING IN THE DARK comes very highly recommended."
"Dee Davis owns romantic suspense. DANCING IN THE DARK is an excellent read, with two protagonists who belong together and know it – eventually. There are enough twists to keep avid guessers going until the end, with a conclusion that is satisfactory on all levels. I bow at Ms. Davis’ feet and beg her to write faster."
~ Scribes World, 5 stars
"Wonderfully suspenseful, DANCING IN THE DARK will keep readers up all night, alternately devouring the book and jumping at the shadows."
~ Escape to Romance
The shrill sound cut through the night.
It reached deep into Sara Martin’s subconscious, jerking her from sleep, vanquishing her dream like smoke on the wind. Angrily, she pushed upright, reaching for the phone.
The line was silent, except for the soft hiss that meant someone was there.
“Hello?” She wasn’t certain why she asked again. He never answered. Just waited, listening. As if he knew what he was interrupting -- but that was impossible. With a release of breath, she slammed the receiver into the cradle, dismissing the prank. It didn’t matter.
Moonlight, filtering through the curtains, cast intricate shadows across the room, and she watched as they danced across the ceiling. Closing her eyes, she tried to recapture the dream, but as always it was illusive, coming only when it chose, never on demand.
Tears welled, and she pushed them away. Time, it seemed, did not heal wounds. It only left them to fester, the memory of all that was good tantalizing in its obscurity. Here in the dark, reality seemed a cruel joke. A punishment for a crime she’d never committed.
Still fighting tears, she reached for the lamp, and with the flick of a switch banished the shadows back into the night. Reflexively she turned, her eyes searching the pillow next to hers. Wanting to find an indentation, a scent. Anything.
She traced the contours of the pillow, letting her imagination remember other times. Better times. But they were gone, along with her husband and son. Forever. Squeezing her eyes shut, she rolled over, fighting for control. It was always worse at night.
Maybe it would be best if she’d just stop dreaming. At least that way the past would stay where it was supposed to be. But even as she had the thought, she knew she didn’t mean it. The dreams were all she had left.
No matter how much they hurt.
After all, it was the hurting that reminded her she was still alive.
The smell was the first thing he noticed, and it wasn’t as if he was new to crime scenes. But this one was bad. He could tell just from the sickly, sweet stench of decaying flesh. With a sigh, Eric D’Angelo pushed past the gathered crowd of homeless people and ducked under the yellow tape, steeling himself for the task at hand.
No matter how many murder scenes he worked, it was always one too many.
“Wondered if you were going to grace us with your presence.” Tony Haskins ambled over as if it were Sunday at the park. His partner’s girth and slow gait hid an astute mind and a quick wit.
“I was across town, and there were a few things I had to handle before I could leave.”
“Right.” Haskins’ eyebrows rose, not missing a beat. “Anyone I know?”
“No.” The single word brooked no further discussion. “So what have we got here?”
“Dead female. Caucasian. Looks to be somewhere between sixteen and twenty, and based on the clothing, I’d say she was a little bit more than just the kid next door.” Tony shifted so that Eric could see the body.
A woman was sprawled beside a dumpster, refuse scattered around her like a picture frame. Even without Tony’s caustic comment, he’d have guessed at her profession. The gold lame halter combined with the micro-mini skirt could have been considered chic, if it weren’t for the fact that they were about two sizes too small. A smear of lipstick marred one cheek, blood staining the other, the two reds at odds with one another, the effect garish.
“She was left like this?” D’Angelo frowned, trying to visualize the situation.
“No.” Tony shook his head. “The guy over there found her. Evidently he pulled her out of the dumpster to get at the stuff underneath, and then couldn’t be bothered to call it in.”
“Or wasn’t able to tell the living from the dead.” Eric shot a look at the old geezer, between the grime and the layers of clothing it was hard to tell what he really looked like, but the vacant gaze was apparent even from here. He’d seen it a hundred times over the years.
“Well, fortunately for us, he wasn’t the only one digging in the garbage.” Tony nodded toward woman sitting on a crate, huddled over a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “She’s the one who called. From over there.”
Eric looked across the alley to the open door of a club, light slashing across the pavement like a rip in the asphalt. “How long since she called it in?”
“A couple of hours. Took the uniforms a little while to locate the woman”
“So what else do we know about the vic?” Eric walked over to the body, his seasoned mind already absorbing details.
“Not much. There’s no ID. Although they haven’t finished searching the dumpster. There’s no sign of struggle and very little blood. Which sure as hell isn’t consistent with her wounds. This woman was stabbed repeatedly, and unless I’ve missed something, that isn’t easy to accomplish without leaving one hell of a mess.”
D’Angelo bent down for a closer look. “There’s blood all over the body, but most of it’s dried.” He frowned, reaching out to carefully touch her cheek. “Rigor’s set in. And the smell alone indicates she’s been dead more than a few hours.”
“Wouldn’t be impossible for her to have been in the dumpster a while.”
“Not impossible.” Claire Dennison, joined them, her eyes narrowed in thought. Claire was a forensics specialist -- a damn good one -- and Eric was glad she’d responded to the call. “But not the case here. There’s no blood in the dumpster either. And even without an autopsy, it’s fairly clear she bled out.”
“So where’s the blood?” Eric stood up, his gaze meeting hers.
“Hard to say. Truth is it could be anywhere.” Claire studied the body with the cool eyes of a professional. “If we’re lucky we’ll find something to tie her to the killer. If not, maybe a fiber or two will at least give us a location.”
Eric nodded, turning his attention to Tony. “So why were we called in?” They were technically off duty, and under normal circumstances, the murder should have fallen to someone else.
“The woman was raped.”
“Kind of hard to tell with a hooker, isn’t it?”
“Not when someone leaves their bat behind.” Tony tipped his head toward a bloody piece of wood protruding beneath the skirt.
“Jesus.” Eric forced his gaze away from the body, frowning up at his partner.
“It gets worse. The guy took her fingers.”
His eyes were automatically drawn to the hand folded against her breast. The lamé hid part of it, but now that he was looking -- really looking -- he could see that all five fingers had been cut off.
A quick glance at her other hand confirmed that it too had been altered.
“Son of a bitch.” He swallowed a mouthful of bile, his gaze locking with Tony’s. “He’s back.”
The soft sound of music filled the air, and Sara let the notes wash over her, the rhythm carrying away some of her tension. Taking a sip from her wine glass, she let the dark smoky taste of merlot run down the back of her throat. Drinking alone was a dangerous luxury. One she seldom indulged in.
But tonight, she needed it.
She took another sip, and stared at the phone. It would be so simple to pick it up, to call Ryan or Molly. But that would mean confessing her state of mind and to be honest, she wasn’t certain she had the energy. Besides, she was a firm believer in maintaining a stiff upper lip. A throwback to her days in foster care.
Never let ‘em see you sweat.
She smiled despite herself. The music and the wine were working. The shadows that haunted her life withdrawing. She looked around the living room, pleased with the soft colors and fashionable antiques. Her home was almost a diametric opposite to the house she and Tom had shared.
Tom had loved the sleek and modern. An architect, he delighted in simplicity. Form and line. Their house had been beautiful. Perched on a cliff, soaring above the treetops, it had been like living in a fantasy of glass and light. After the accident, the house had become a horrifying symbol for all she’d lost.
So she’d sold it, and moved to the center of Austin. As far away from the hills as she could get without leaving the city all together. The Hyde Park Victorian was a far cry from Tom’s designs, but it suited her somehow. And with time, she’d actually grown to love it. There was something cathartic in making a place for herself. Almost as if the walls themselves had the power to heal her.
The doorbell rang, breaking through her reverie. Frowning she set the wine glass down, wondering who could possibly be visiting so late. Cautiously approaching the door, she grabbed an umbrella from the stand, and stood on tiptoe to peer through the peephole.
Releasing a breath, she replaced the umbrella and unlocked the door, swinging it open. “Damn it, Ryan, you scared me half to death. It’s the middle of the night.”
Ryan Greene smiled, his eyes crinkling with the gesture. “Sorry. I was on my way home and saw the light.”
Sara moved away from the door, gesturing for him to come in. “It’s awfully late to be working. Looming deadline?”
“No.” He shrugged sheepishly. “Actually, I was following up on a story.”
Ryan was the editor in chief for Texas Today, a weekly magazine with a large regional reader base. But despite the fact, he’d never been able to totally give up the thrill of chasing a lead.
Case in point.
“So what’s the story?”
He crossed over to the wine bottle and poured himself a glass. “There’s been another murder.”
A chill chased down her spine. “The same guy?”
“They’re not saying. There’s a press conference scheduled for tomorrow. Until then, we won’t know anything for sure. But the M.O. is similar. The main difference seems to be that the body was left in a trash bin.”
“Downtown. In an alley behind a bar.”
The press had been consumed with the brutal murders of two prostitutes over the last eighteen months. Speculation was that the deaths were the work of the same man. But two cases weren’t enough to establish a pattern. Three on the other hand…
“Were you there?”
“Yeah.” His eyes darkened, his features harsh. “It wasn’t a pretty picture.”
“You should have called me. I could have gotten some shots.” Although she didn’t normally photograph murder scenes, she’d done it several times over the years. Usually when she was nearby or there wasn’t any one else available.
Ryan’s gaze met hers, his expression softening. “I wouldn’t subject you to that.”
“I’m tougher than I look.”
“I don’t doubt that. But considering all that you’ve been through, I didn’t think it was appropriate. Besides, I can pull pictures off the wires.” He took a sip of wine, studying her over the rim of his glass.
“Sorry. I was just noticing the circles under your eyes.” Ryan frowned, his eyes reflecting his concern. “You’ve been having the nightmare again, haven’t you?”
She shook her head, trying for nonchalance and failing miserably. “It’s just a dream.”
“It’s more than that and you know it.”
“Right. It’s a manifestation of my grief. A normal part of the healing process.” She mimicked the doctor perfectly, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “Well, I, for one, would like for it to manifest itself into oblivion.” She picked up the glass again, swallowing the contents in one gulp.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do.” But she didn’t -- and therein lay the problem.
“Damn it, Sara.” Ryan leaned forward, his hand covering hers. “Why didn’t you call me?”
Gently she pulled away, leaning back on the sofa. “Because I’m a big girl, Ryan. I can take care of myself.”
“Right.” He sat back, his concern still evident. “And that would explain the merlot at midnight.”
“Look, I’m fine. They’re just dreams. It’s not like they cause me physical harm. So I lose a little sleep. It’s not such a bad price to pay.”
“I know you miss them, Sara. But you’ve got to move on. You can’t keep living in the past.” He ran a hand through his hair, his look beseeching. “You know as well as I do that Tom and Charlie wouldn’t want that.”
“Sometimes I don’t think I know anything any more.” She rubbed the gold of her wedding ring, wishing it were a magic lamp. A way to change time. To change fate.
“Don’t say things like that.” He looked so earnest, she almost laughed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Honestly.” She stood up, smothering a yawn. The wine had done its job. “It’s just that it’s late and I’m tired.”
“You want me to stay?”
She smiled, shaking her head. “I’ll be fine. It’s almost morning anyway. You go home and get some sleep.” She reached up to lay a hand on his cheek. “Thanks for watching out for me.”
He covered her hand with his. “That’s what friends are for, Sara.”
She stepped back, embarrassed suddenly. She wasn’t usually given to outbursts of emotion. In fact she prided herself on maintaining control. It’s just that sometimes it was so damn hard. “You want me to try and get some photos at the press conference tomorrow?” She walked with him toward the door, firmly steering the conversation back to business.
He shook his head. “I already called Satchel. But I do still need you at the mayor’s office. He’s not an easy man to photograph, and I’m counting on you to pull the best out of him.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“That’s my girl.” He walked out onto the porch. “Try and get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Nodding, she lifted a hand to wave, then shut the door, throwing the deadbolt. Turning around to face the empty room, her eyes were drawn to a picture on the wall. Tom and Charlie smiled out at her from the frame and her heart twisted with longing.
Reaching over she traced first her husband’s face, then her son’s, her mind conjuring the feel of Charlie’s baby soft skin, the smell of Tom’s aftershave. She knew it was time to move on. Time to make a new life. But somehow she couldn’t let go. Couldn’t find the courage.
Or maybe it was just that she just didn’t know how.
Eric D’Angelo stared down at the pictures on his kitchen table. He’d arranged them side by side so that he could examine each victim in context with the others, hoping that one of them at least would have something to tell him.
But so far the ladies were being stubbornly silent. The differences between the three women were as numerous as the similarities. Location had varied, although, until the last one, the body had been found at the site of the murder. One was a confirmed prostitute, and another had been known to sell her body when she ran out of drug money. The third looked like a member of the same sisterhood, although the fact had not yet been confirmed.
None of the ladies were exactly cream of the crop. But that didn’t mean they’d deserved to die. Not like this. Hell, not at all. He picked up the picture of the first victim. Laurel Henry was well over thirty, and she’d obviously lived a hard life. Her cheeks were pock marked, and a tiny scar ran from the corner of her mouth down her chin.
She had a rap sheet a mile long. Everything from solicitation to petty larceny. Like the other two, she’d been raped repeatedly, then stabbed, and left to bleed out.
She was also missing an ear.
His stomach twisted with revulsion. He saw the results of humanity’s inhumanity every day, but something like this still had the power to shake him.
He picked up the second picture, studying the lifeless black woman. Candy Mason was the diametric opposite of Laurel, her curly dark hair and chocolate skin a tin-type negative of the older blonde woman. She had also been stabbed, after an wine bottle had been used in ways he didn’t even want to contemplate. Like Laurel there’d been angry wounds, and blood everywhere.
But this time the killer had cut out her tongue.
He picked up the last of the photos. The latest victim was nothing like the other two. Younger by maybe ten years, she couldn’t be more than eighteen. Her over-mascaraed eyes stared vacantly up at him, her hands crossed almost virginally across her chest.
Another kid on the streets with nothing to lose -- except her life. The body appeared to be the least marked up of the three, but that didn’t negate the horror.
Even in death, pain seemed to radiate from her. As if her soul was still there, calling to him from the photograph.
Which was of course nonsense.
He put down the picture, rubbing the bridge of his nose. It was late, and he wasn’t getting anywhere. Tomorrow, after the M.E. was finished with her, they’d know more. Like her name. And why she’d been dumped there.
Maybe her murder wasn’t connected to the others. She was younger, softer somehow. And the others had been found at the scene. This girl had obviously been moved. Still, there were commonalities between the three. The use of a knife, the missing appendages, and the impersonal savagery of the rape.
But there was one major difference.
When the first two women had been found, there’d been music playing, an endless recording of soft swelling notes, a love song forming a poignant counterpoint to the brutal violence that had ended their lives. He looked down at the picture of the third woman.
There’d been no music -- at least not in the alleyway -- but then she hadn’t actually died there, and D’Angelo had the feeling that when they found the murder site, they’d find the music. It was a signature of sorts, the reason the press had dubbed the perp the Sinatra Killer.
He blew out a breath, and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. One thing was definitely for certain; there was twisted logic in every move a guy like that made. Which meant he was still out there somewhere, waiting, watching, and sooner or later, he was going to strike again.
The only real question was when.
Excerpt from DANCING IN THE DARK by Dee Davis, Copyright ©2003 by Dee Davis. All rights reserved. Reprint only with permission from author. Please contact email@example.com.